Recently, I finally sat down to watch DRIVE, Ryan Gosling’s new movie directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and co-starring Carey Mulligan, Ron Pearlman, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks and the scene-stealing Albert Brooks. Mr. Gosling stars as the most emo stuntman that has ever been. He’s a man with a dark past who mopes around from scene to scene occasionally driving cars and killing people in graphic detail.
After falling for his single mother neighbor, his romantic plans are put on hold when her convict husband is finally released from jail. Unable to escape his criminal past, the husband is literally beaten into one more job. His subtle machismo brimming, our Driver offers his services to the demanding gangsters in exchange for the family to be left alone and all debts paid. Without giving too much away, one can imagine that
hilarity ensues everything goes wrong, and its up to the driver to make it right. The driving is few and far between, the violence is brutal and graphic, and an overwhelming stench of good old fashioned misogyny throughout.
I have three main problems with this movie. One: there is ZERO character development in any sort of manner that would lead me to care in even the slightest amount for these people. Two: there is ZERO story development. What the hell really happens in this movie? And third: the overwhelming tone of cool self-satisfaction that permeates this film.
Let me start from the top…
The characters in this movie feel as if they were pulled out of the pages of some trash novel the producers found in the gutter outside the production office. Gosling plays a man with a past, a man whose darkness is hidden beneath his soulful eyes (a conceit that is used throughout the movie). He is similar to Clint Eastwood’s character, William Munny from Unforgiven, a man who we only hear about, legends and stories muttered in passing, words that Munny brushes off and denies they’re very validity. This is where the similarities stop.
Eastwood’s character constantly reminds us of his inner struggle, not just by staring into the great beyond, but by openly acknowledging the things in his life that where good, that motivate his desire to be different, to be good. Our Driver has none of this. He stares longingly out windows and at his neighbor, just generally being a mope. Why? Does he WANT to get away from his past? Is he really even trying to? Gosling floats from scene to scene just going through the motions. Now I drive, now I fight, now I play with the kid, now I look out this window and so on, all the while trying to look his coolest.
His co-stars don’t fare much better. The amazing Bryan Cranston is wasted playing a character I think they pulled from a comic that ran in penthouse in the 70’s. Albert Brooks playing the delightfully playful ex-Hollywood producer-turned-crime-boss. He steals every scene he is in, but you can tell even he is struggling to do something with what he is given. Even the great Ron Pearlman is just a paper cut out. However, the one who gets the worst out of the whole mess is poor Carey Mulligan.
The movie plays her as a single mother so weak and mousey that she can’t possibly survive WITHOUT a man to help her get through. The movie hides its blatant misogyny by showing us longing looks between Mulligan and Gosling, broken only by small phrases. Phrases punctuated by such huge beats between them it would make William Shatner blush. "Oh they are in love, that’s all we need to know," I suppose is the idea they want us to go with. But here’s the thing, I have known a number of single mothers and all of them where strong proud women. They didn’t need a man to deal; they had it under control. Just from this alone I was offended by this characterization. She's not a new mother left alone in a world she isn’t ready for. THE KID IS LIKE 7 YEARS OLD. Any woman who raises a kid for that amount of time with a husband whose job involves him going to jail isn’t going to be so frail and weak. It was a blatant stereotype and a gross misrepresentation. The only thing missing was a drug addiction to really drive the helplessness home.
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She isn’t alone in her suffering; there are only two other scenes involving women. One takes place in a strip club, where naturally the women are all just objects, props to be placed around as set dressing. The second is a female con that, unlike all her male gangster counterparts, is played off as a complete amateur loosing her cool the moment things get out of hand. She is also the object of Ryan Goslings first violent outburst. In the context of the action, I understood why he does what he does. Yet I found it odd that the very first act of violence we see our "hero" do is to slap a crying female. I suppose the filmmakers thought that would illustrate how tough he is, how far he is willing to go. It does not. He has plenty of opportunity to hint at this prior to the event but they don’t. We only hear stories and are given small broken details to his violent past. It is the first brush stroke to your greater understanding that the main character you are on this ride with is nothing more than a psychopath.
The story isn’t much more together than the characters. The film sets off at a good pace with an interesting slow speed chase through downtown Los Angeles. Our Driver employs a few clever tricks to evade his pursuers and escape the scene. Mind you that none of these tricks come back into play later on. They are only there again to make our hero seem cool and to make the slow pace a bit more flashy. It is never explained why he does this career, nor how he got it. Is it even important? Apparently not.
Scenes drag on for what seems like forever thanks to the large amount of silence the actors like to put between each and every line. Yet these scenes hold nothing important. A couple bones are thrown our way so we have some sort of motivation for a story, but nothing ever feels solid. Because we have no sense of Ryan Goslings character as a person, these things are really just meaningless, as if the movie expects us to emotionally suspend our disbelief. Overall, it makes it feel soulless.
I know a number of people who have seen this movie 2-3 times in the theater. I asked them to point out any single scene that had elements of real character or serious story development in them. They could not. Instead I was told "it’s a style exercise" or "its not really that kind of movie." Films that flaunt style over substance are not new; in fact they have been around for some time. Most of these films would be called "experimental" or maybe even "art house". This movie was neither; I found it hard to understand why it would be any different than just watching youtube videos while listening to 80’s music.
When the movie finally gets going it dives into brutal and graphic violence that the filmmakers seem to relish in. I understand the reasoning; we need to understand the lengths this guy is capable of going to, fine. But in a movie so slow and boring for the first 30 minutes to then slap me in the face like that was jarring (and not in a good way). All the while the filmmakers seem to take joy in all the fine grisly details.
In one scene, our driver dispatches two baddies finishing the last off with a nice shower rod to the throat. As he leans out of the bathroom, a slit of light shines on his face covered in blood his baby blues shining like jewels though the red, while the sputter and gurgle of his victim bleeding out can be heard in the background. Too much? Maybe not. Plenty of the people I know said they enjoyed that aspect of it that it showed who he really was. Yet as the violence escalates, he just comes off more like a psychopath; his acts becoming more gruesome as he unwinds. Am I supposed to forgive him for being crazy because he seems to be using his crazy for good?
The story dissolves into loose connections and pulpy storytelling until it reaches its final climax with a whimper. The lack of a substantial plot wasn’t the worst part. On the contrary, I enjoy a number of movies that have minimal or unconventional narratives. But this movie wasn’t that. I got the feeling that this lack of story was almost a total disdain for me as a viewer. As if I was so dumb that all I needed to stay connected was cool stuff flashing in my face to hide all the loose associations and clichéd character motivations. Which brings me to my final problem with this movie: Its overwhelming sense of coolness.
From frame one, this movie paints itself as cool. Colorfully saturated photography is laced with a thumping electro-pop soundtrack, courtesy of Cliff Martinez. It’s not a bad soundtrack, but when all the pieces move as one it pushes the cool factor to ridiculous heights. Ultimately, the movie used this coolness as a veil to hide the mess going on underneath. It was as if I would be too caught up in how cool it was to ever pay attention to the mess that was happening on the screen.
A couple months ago I went to a screening of another movie by the same director. During the Q & A afterwards I was shocked by how nonchalant he was about his filmmaking. He almost seemed to not even care about it, like he only did it to be that big shot director. He was in fact in town working on Drive and had such a blasé attitude about it, it was like he almost resented the work. Even my good friend who had been a big fan of his had to agree he was an ass. I mention this because the whole time I watched Drive I felt that attitude. The film seemed to dump itself on top of me, and I was just supposed to love it cause it was cool and looked like Ryan Gosling.
Watching this movie felt like the visual equivalent of hanging out with the most obnoxious hipster you could think of. Sitting in a corner telling me how lame I am and to just shut up and let it show me what cool is. Did I hate this movie? No. Are people stupid for liking it so much? No. While I am surprised by how passionately people rally around this movie
What is a movie without Character or Story? Should I pay money to see some guy ‘experiment’ with coolness? Does cool alone pass as something of merit when it comes to cinema? Is it worth the 12 dollars admission? Like I said, many movies favor style over substance, and there is nothing wrong with that, but in most cases those movie KNOW what they are. Ultimately, this movie is about a guy who like to drive around in a car sometimes and is supposed to be so much cooler than you that the filmmakers are hoping you wont notice the profound lack of depth and the lingering stench of clichéd misogyny.