By Drew Turney
This is the first film since ”Rise of the Planet of the Apes” I’ve gone so strongly against consensus opinion. Critics are raving about ”Drive” but, like the most abstract arthouse films, it just left me sitting there wondering what I’d missed.
A very archetypal American John Wayne-esque figure (few words, immobile face, no nonsense, good guy but don’t cross him) drives for a living. He’s a stunt driver for movies through the day, is being groomed as a race car driver by his employer and erstwhile father (Cranston) and he has a sideline as a getaway driver in robberies and criminal enterprises, complete with the whole schtick about ‘you get a five minute window’ – soundbite marketing that’s perfect for the trailer and poster.
When a winsome young woman (Mulligan) moves into his apartment building and catches his eye, he finds himself drawn into her and her young son’s lives in the very well worn style of the stoic hero bought undone when he finds love.
But she’s married, and when her husband (Isaac, showing up in some great roles since he played Jose Ramos Horta in Balibo) comes out of jail with a debt on his head, the hero we know only as Driver (Gosling) agrees to a single job to get him out of the hole simply because he doesn’t want to see the woman and child he’s come to love suffer.
A sexy redhead (Hendricks) is somehow connected to the robbery plot but I couldn’t figure out quite how, and when it all goes pear shaped at the pawn shop Driver has to go on the run from the mob bosses who are underwriting his current venture (Perlman and Brooks).
It was supposed to have been full of movie references and symbolism, but I’m not as well versed in the extreme cinephile movements of ”Rio Bravo” and the other Westerns I imagine it references, so I hardly saw a single one. The very stylized 80s marketing typography and soundtrack seemed to be saying something too, but nothing about the movie made it clear what it was.
But the biggest problem I had was that it was (as I’ve heard since) a B movie (which might explain the pink running writing font). After ”Bronson” and ”Valhalla Rising”, I had Nicholas Winding Refn pegged as an arthouse director foremost and an action man later. Hence I was constantly looking for subtext I just don’t think was there, but scenes like Driver coming up to the door of the pizza parlour with a stunt mask on and vengeance on his mind (then slowly backing away, having done nothing) made it seem there was a whole lot of undercurrent you’re supposed to understand.
I also can’t understand why Gosling is being praised so much for his performance. He’s a good looking guy and he’s talented, but this no-words-all-action character has been old since the 1950s, and nobody heaped accolades on Arnold Schwarzenegger for doing the same thing in ”The Terminator”.
There’s one standout, and that’s smart romantic comedy director Albert Brooks as the mobster Bernie. The ever-dependable Perlman as Jewish gangster Nino is fun enough to watch, but seeing Brooks play so much against type is the best part of the movie. It reminds me of an idea I had years ago that I hope someone in Hollywood cottons onto. With his white crop of hair and eternally goofy smiling face, Steve Martin would make the scariest psychotic, murderous mob boss ever.