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A Drive Down the Nastiest Side-street of Payback Avenue

Movie Review: Drive (2011)
Summary: A Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a heist getaway driver discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong.
Spoilers: none

Ryan Gosling is a professional stunt driver by day and heist getaway driver by night in Drive. As he is working with longtime friend, “Shannon” (Bryan Cranston), Driver meets “Irene” (Carey Mulligan) and her son, “Benicio” (Kaden Leos) whose father, “Standard” (Oscar Isaac) is in prison.

As Driver begins to get close to the family and Standard is released, Bernie agrees to help him with a heist to keep his family from harm by mob debt collectors. But when things go drastically
wrong during the job and Driver, Irene, and her son all find themselves on the mob’s hit list, things get plenty ugly.

What at first may seem by the previews to be car porn offers us something quite different—different in a movie that does not sell itself to the stupid and immature, but instead, to the most loyal of crime junkies and the sadistic. This is crime drama with peculiar and effective story development that, despite some besetting flaws, holds interest.

No doubt purposely, the 80s music and feel makes us think we are playing Vice City with the cursive neon pink lettering on the opening credits, camera shots downward from tall buildings in early evening sunlight, old cars, and a jacket worn by the star with a scorpion on the back. I’m game for the atmosphere. What I’m not game for is the way the plot handles its material throughout.

For the first 1/3 of the film, as Driver bonds with his neighbor and their son, there is very little verbal communication…at all. This becomes such a problem, as the film full-on refuses to invest a little in the emotions of the characters, which the film does not even make an attempt at doing until later. It hurries through the pathos and gets us into the somber and solitary life of Driver.

Perhaps most troubling, one has to wonder why people do the things they do here. That gold scorpion jacket you see Driver wearing is the same one he keeps wearing out in public for the entire movie—with blood on it as he walks about openly. And when you and your son are targeted by the mob even suggestively, you don’t go to work; you get the fuck out of town!

And if you’re a mobster, you don’t meet to discuss mob business in public places like restaurants (a common movie blunder which, if that were the only one, we could forgive), but you certainly don’t kill people by stabbing them in broad daylight outside in the parking lot of a strip mall or next to the windows of a pizzeria. Midway thru, the film becomes such a sadistic murder-fest that it loses both perspective and respect from viewers.

Indeed, the entire set of grave circumstances the main character faces could have been avoided with some simple common sense, which nobody in the movie seems to have. But this implausible kill-for-all doesn’t offer up wanton performances in its folly, but stays the course in giving us characters that are stone-cold faithful to the way in which they were written and intended to be.

There are some attractive qualities in Drive, not the least of which being the movie’s thrills. But these wear thin the more we get into the situation with the crime family. The leaders we see in it, “Bernie Rose” (Albert Brooks) (who brilliantly handles himself on screen) and “Nino” (Ron Perlman) seem like awfully low-level players in a crime syndicate that resorts to getting things as messy as possible and without reason for doing so.

Driver and Irene don’t seem to connect (aside from Mulligan’s wide, childlike smile that envelops him and viewers), but it’s hard to tell due to the psyche of Bernie. He’s nearly a mute who has no apparent misgivings about his dark career, but then we have nothing to read into his personality, so we can’t say for sure. Is he suffering from some past tragedy? We never get to learn much about him, except that when not helping with heists, he likes the finer things in life, like his neighbor’s fatherless kid.

Drive was made to be a blood-soaked thriller. But instead of helping it, the relentless quest for money and payback leaves us with only a few clever kill scenes that are worthy of directorial note. Refn’s almost romanticized vision has it high-points, and perhaps moviemakers ought to stop and take note of how to give their killing this much of an artistic flair.

(JH)

Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: R (for strong, brutal, bloody violence, language, and some nudity)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: “Driver” (Ryan Gosling), “Irene” (Carey Mulligan), “Shannon” (Bryan Cranston), “Bernie Rose” (Albert Brooks), “Standard” (Oscar Isaac)
Genre: Action / Crime / Drama / Thriller
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