Movie Review: Drive
By Matthew Huntley
September 22, 2011
The plot involves two other characters named Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), both of whom are members of the Jewish mafia. Bernie has agreed to fund Shannon’s plan of restoring an old racecar and letting Driver sit behind the wheel. I won’t reveal how else Bernie and Nino intertwine in the plot, but after we meet them and hear them talk, they’re more or less relegated to standard bad guy roles. The screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on the book by James Sallis, doesn’t grant them very interesting or believable dialogue, and they end up being a distraction more than anything, in spite of their eventual connection to the other characters.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn is an ambitious filmmaker to be sure, but he isn’t interested in story as much as presentation. We know only bullet points about the characters, which are only enough for the plot to move forward. When it becomes clear the movie isn’t going to dig deeper into their pasts or motivations, our investment in them becomes limited and they merely end up as archetypes played by some very fine actors.
The last third of the picture revolves around brutal action and violence, which is effective and visceral, but still leaves us feeling empty. As much respect as I have for Drive on a technical level, right down to Newton Thomas Sigel’s exquisite cinematography and Matthew Newman’s orchestrated editing, I wanted the story to be bolder and weightier, especially with regards to the characters. Sure, they hardly ever developed the tough guys played by Steve McQueen or Charles Bronson, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have. Why not take the genre further and utilize the cast’s talents instead of simply exploiting their superficial qualities?
Still, if you accept Drive as an exercise in style, it’s worth experiencing, because the style is quite impressive and beautiful. The opening sequence is masterful in the way it slowly reveals just how dynamic Driver is and how the streets of L.A. are his playground against cop cars and helicopters. The images tell us this, which is why it’s unnecessary for Shannon to speak about it later on. The soundtrack is strong, too, incorporating songs that seem to have been chosen for their aesthetic value instead of their popularity.
As for the inevitable car chase, it’s one of the better examples in recent years and starts with a sound that’s so pulsating, I doubt anyone will not be startled when they hear it, even if they expect it. Car chases are so standard these days they’re often boring to watch, but the one in Drive is more credible because we know the main character is also a professional driver. Of course, we’ve seen many other iterations of it, but it still pumps us up and leads into the final act, which is a gratuitous and excessive mix of violence and gore. Even though they don’t bear much consequence to the thin story, at least the filmmakers make them look pretty.
I knew going in that Drive was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which surprises me, because it’s not THAT good. It works as a stylish action drama, and I admire its craft, but it didn’t leave me in as much awe as I was expecting. The filmmakers definitely have energy and talent, and if their technical skills could be matched by an equally captivating story, they’d probably have a masterpiece on their hands.