Friday, September 16, 2011

Drive: Stalls after the first lap

Drive (2011) • View trailer for Drive
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for brutal violence, gore, profanity and nudity
By Derrick Bang

Attitude and fuzzy storytelling will go only so far; eventually, one must deliver the goods or risk being exposed as a fraud.
Movie stunt driver by day, criminal getaway driver by night. Ryan Gosling's
unnamed protagonist has a workable life carved out, but his iron-hard exterior
cracks after meeting an attractive neighbor who arouses his sympanthy. And,
just like that, we know this guy is doomed ... along with lots of other folks.

And even when the minimalist acting comes from Ryan Gosling — far more interesting than most, particularly when he channels the “king of cool” as some sort of latter-day Steve McQueen — the pregnant pauses and long, motionless camera takes wear thin after awhile.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, making his American film debut, errs badly — his first mistake of many — with a slick, crisply executed prologue that the rest of his film fails to match. Nothing could top the smooth tension and cleverly choreographed maneuvers within this early heist/chase sequence, and that's a shame; Drive demonstrates considerable promise on the basis of this introduction, and then turns vague, moody and needlessly contrived.

Gosling is introduced as an impeccable getaway driver: a consummate pro who knows the greater Los Angeles area's mean streets like the back of his hand. He comes complete with a well-practiced speech that defines his area of involvement — no guns, no waiting, just driving — and is delivered by Gosling with an iconic élan that matches Clint Eastwood's “I know what you’re thinking” warning, way back in the first Dirty Harry film.

By day, our deliberately unnamed protagonist works as a film stunt driver; off hours, he repairs cars at an auto shop run by longtime friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston, at his scruffy best). Every so often, local goombah Bernie (Albert Brooks) routes an extracurricular assignment through Shannon, which our Driver-With-No-Name accepts with scarcely a change of expression.

The driver lives alone in an apartment that betrays no personality; he has grown quite comfortable with a nomadic, no-strings-attached existence. Then capricious fate interrupts the flow with an attractive neighbor — Carey Mulligan, as Irene — who catches his eye once, then twice, then a crucial third time.

Gosling conveys the wheels turning in his character's brain: weighing options, calculating consequences. He knows he should ignore her; even something as innocuous as a lift home comes freighted with significance. It's a spark: a connection.

He succumbs. And, just like that, we know he's doomed. The only questions are how, when and the likely number of collateral casualties.

Irene and her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos, cute as a bug), represent stability and normality; the driver surrenders to random acts of kindness. But before even a casual routine can become established, Irene's imprisoned husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released and added to the mix.

Isaac delivers an intriguing performance. Standard obviously is toxic — his initial encounter with his “helpful neighbor” is weighted with feral implication, like two alpha lions are circling the same lioness — and yet he loves his wife and son, and wants to do right by them. Alas, his former life carries its own debts and dangers.

The driver, perceiving a threat to Irene and Benicio, offers to help Standard with a heist that is supposed to “solve” his problems. (Yeah, right.) Naturally, it all goes to hell ... and just gets worse with each successive attempt to correct the original error.

Until this point, the coiled-rattlesnake tension has been a pervasive waiting game; we know something awful is coming. When it arrives, the initial burst of violence is realistic and shocking.

But from that point onward, Refn overplays the brutality card; subsequent skirmishes become ghastly, gory and needlessly off-putting. Think of the climactic bloodbath from Taxi Driver, writ larger and many times over, or the deranged, over-the-top gore of Al Pacino's Scarface. Refn's film turns into a gloppy, gruesome, mainstream horror flick; our protagonist's actions, even in self-defense, become unacceptably grotesque.

OK, fine; at his core, the driver is a methodical killer who — until now — has sublimated everything else to his self-preservational skills. He has slipped — allowed the softer emotions of love and compassion to emerge — and he's paying the consequences. And despite the obvious skill with which he, ah, deals with adversaries, he's still a nobler warrior than, say, Bernie's brutal partner, Nino (Ron Perlman, suitably vicious), or their assorted goons.

Or even Bernie, for that matter. Those who remember Brooks solely from his comedic roles are in for a surprise; he's quite credible here as a coldly methodical crime boss.

More than anything else, the driver doesn't want Irene to witness his less palatable behavior ... but that, like digging his way out of the ever-deepening hole, becomes less likely as the hours pass.

Gosling doesn't say much during the course of this film; his character's conversation never rises above clipped sentences with one- and two-syllable words. Communication comes via the alternately amused or disinterested light in his eyes, or the angle of the ubiquitous toothpick in his mouth.

The initial hallway face-off between Gosling and Isaac is marvelous, in this respect; Standard, suspicious of this stranger's presence in his wife's life, radiates don't-go-there menace. The driver merely smiles, tightly, and we sense that — absent Irene's presence — Standard likely would receive a world of hurt. But then the relationship dynamics become more complicated, and that's also intriguing: never more so than during a subsequent dinner, with both men at Irene's table.

Unfortunately, Refn's laboriously long takes have grown irritating by now; the subsequent bloodbaths make the tedium even more unpalatable.

And like so many of today’s ham-handed directors, Refn badly damages his film by adding ill-advised and inappropriately timed songs to the soundtrack. Far too many contemporary filmmakers seem to believe that interlaced vocal tracks – pop tunes, ballads, rap, whatever — can help “sell” the desired emotion of a given scene. Actually, this betrays laziness and inexperience; if a scene is constructed properly, it doesn't need that sort of extraneous fluff. Indeed, the songs pull us out of the drama: never a good thing.

I can't fault any of the performances here; they're all strong, and Gosling does his best to keep his antihero interesting. Mulligan, as well, conveys a wealth of sadness at poor Irene's lot in life, as she tries to remain a faithful wife despite knowing the dangers involved with that decision ... not to mention the fresh menace of her new acquaintance.

After awhile, though, we can't help noticing the absence of back-story, or the preponderance of ludicrous coincidence, and the fact that — particularly in the gory third act — these characters become little more than puppets being jerked about by Hossein Amini's increasingly contrived script, adapted from the novel by veteran crime writer James Sallis.

I can assume that Sallis did much better with character exposition and narrative coherence. Refn seems to believe that his film can survive without those elements; he's wrong.

Perhaps most bewilderingly, though, our driver doesn't do much driving after that glossy opening sequence. Yes, Refn includes one flamboyant car chase a bit later, but our protagonist's skills behind the wheel get buried beneath his skills at, ah, macerating human flesh.

By the time we reach Refn's mildly ambiguous finale — a twist on the blinking game the driver earlier plays with young Benicio — we've simply ceased to care.

Never a good outcome.

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