Review: “Drive”

The Projector

1. "Drive" takes you on such an intoxicating ride, so hypnotic and engrossing from start to finish, that it's not until it's over that you realize you didn't really go anywhere. How you react to it is almost entirely dependent on how willing you are to give yourself up: If you are looking for a traditional -- or even logical -- thriller, tightly plotted, with double-crosses and dense Michael Mann-level characterization, you're going to find yourself digging deeper than "Drive" has interest in doing. None of these characters add up to much: They are almost entirely all pose. But what a pose it is. I don't remember much of what happened in "Drive" even a week after seeing it, but the movie's still rattling around my head. More accurately: My head's still rattling around the movie. It's the type of movie that makes you leave the theater feeling like it's still going on, a few hours, or even a week, after it's over. It lets you inside to play.

2. To give you an idea of what director Nicolas Winding Refn is up to in "Drive," note that the lead character has no name: He is simply "Driver." (Apparently it's like that in the slim novel the film is "based" on as well.) He's played by Ryan Gosling as if Gosling, in another one of those acting experiments he seems to conduct entirely in his own brain, was curious what Steve McQueen would be like if played emo. When we meet Driver, we know nothing about him other than that he's a getaway driver and a stuntman; you spend the rest of the movie waiting for more backstory that Refn and Gosling don't really care to provide. He is just Hero, and he is excellent at driving cars. (And Refn makes sure he looks excellent driving cars.) He works for a bumbling but likable mechanic (Bryan Cranston) who's constantly getting himself into trouble with a movie producer-turned-crime lord (Albert Brooks). Why does he work for such a loser? Why is he such a good driver? What's his plan? What's he doing here? If you're asking such questions, "Drive" has already lost you. This is a music video.

3. The movie hits its moody groove when Driver meets and falls for (maybe? I'm still not sure Driver has human emotions) a mother (Carey Mulligan, who doesn't have much to do) whose husband is in prison; when the husband is released and finds himself embroiled in the crime world again, Driver steps in to save the family only to run into exactly the wrong people. I've spent too much time on plot already. Refn isn't interested in moral ambiguity or layered subtlety: He is preoccupied with the artifice of movies, of taking the genre of heist thrillers, with their strong silent heroes and "action" "scenes," and basically wringing them for every drop of sweat and blood he can get. The movie is essentially one riveting set-piece after another, Refn preening around what he and his actors can do, seducing you into their world even if none of it means anything. The '80s New Order-esque score by Cliff Martinez lulls you into the film's archetypes of Good and Evil and those dream-like flights through the endless, labyrinthine, pulsating streets of Los Angeles, then, just when you're settling into the vibe, someone's head gets bashed in. This happens over and over, scenes of shocking violence ripping you out of the film's almost autoerotic affectations. This is Refn's one trick in "Drive," and it is a measure of his skill and dedication to it that works, pretty much every time.

4. And let there be no doubt: "Drive" is a dramatically violent film, with Refn making sure you see, hear and feel every crunch and splatter. This violence is entirely unnecessary -- why is Driver so skilled at ultraviolence? Because it looks cool, that's why -- and doesn't even seem to make any sort of overarching point: Refn is too enamored by the cinematic possibilities of violence for this to be any sort of tsk-tsk about audiences becoming numb to violence. I think he's just having fun and showing off. This is the general strategy of "Drive," and I can understand why it'll leave some viewers cold: There's nothing behind the curtain. But it's easy to get over that when Refn keeps putting so much faith in performance, the obvious delight his actors and his crew have with the freedom he gives them. Gosling is the center of the film, but the real sign of what the movie's up to lies in Brooks' hilarious and horrifying performance as the head gangster. There isn't much to the character, so Refn just lets Brooks run with it, and it's sort of astounding how easy it is to go along with The Albert Brooks Character sliding into vicious monstrosity. It's really something, and it's sort of amazing that Brooks hasn't been playing bad guys his entire career. You kind of have to see it to believe it.

5. I've never quite understood the notion that there is "genre" filmmaking, that some films are Serious and some films are Pulp, and they should be experienced and judged accordingly. Tickets, after all, cost the same either way. "Drive" isn't about anything more than every frame of itself, a self-indulgent vanity play that at times feels like Refn trying to show Hollywood how much better of a dancer he is than everyone else. The whole film is studied and removed from anything resembling human life, one long commercial selling itself. But boy, what a product it has to sell. I give in: This is pop art of the highest degree.

Grade: A-