Wednesday, September 14, 2011
(Please note: A movie like Drive is best seen cold. The Siren doesn’t discuss the ending, but when she writes up a movie she does so in detail. If you plan to see Drive, she suggests you come back and read this later, if you are so inclined. It will still be here.)
Sometime around May 19 the Siren's Twitter feed started filling up with ordinarily temperate movie writers made dancing machines by the Cannes screening of Drive, the new heist thriller from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Three months later, the word of mouth is more like a bellow, so the Siren was happy to go see for herself, through the kindness of Danny Bowes of Movies by Bowes.
It all begins so well, with Gosling's voice providing what seems like film noir narrative, until you realize he's on the phone setting up a heist. He visits his crusty sidekick, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) to get his souped-up Impala, and waits outside a grim warehouse for two robbers he's never met, like a limo driver picking up some slumming clients. The pursuit sequence that follows made the Siren almost weepy with gratitude for a director who lets her get good and comfortable with a shot, who's got rhythm, damn it, and the nerve to lace the frantic motion of a car chase with pauses that play out just long enough.
Then Gosling meets Carey Mulligan, and suspense strips its gears. Thus the Siren is in the somewhat unexpected position of stating that Drive would be a fine genre picture, if it weren't for all that gooey girl stuff.
We’ll have to call Gosling's character Driver, because he has no name, just like Joan Fontaine in Rebecca. (Wait--isn't that what all the guys at the press screenings said? No? Damn.) He drives getaway cars for a living, when he isn't risking his neck as a stunt driver. Down the hall from him lives Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos, utterly natural and unirritating). Benicio's father (Oscar Isaac) is in prison just long enough for Driver to form a bond with Irene and yearn for All the Things He Will Never Have, and yes, that's the goo the Siren is complaining about. Then the father is sprung from jail, but he owes money to men he met inside. To protect Irene, Driver agrees to help out her husband in a pawnshop robbery. And of course that goes the way of all heists, and flesh…
Gosling is handsome, in his senior-class-ring sort of way; CGI him into the crowd of overage teens in Rebel Without a Cause and nobody'd know the difference. His perfectly muscled body seems made for intimidating the shit out of people. Oddly, however, especially given his recent Youtube exploit, he's not that impressive until he starts whaling away. Take a moment when a former client proposes another heist. Driver growls, "Shut your mouth or I'll kick your teeth down your throat." Two problems, aside from the line's being a bit flavorless, as action-movie threats go; one is that Gosling's voice sounds more breathy than vicious. It could be that the instrument's just too naturally thin and boyish, but his register is in the same neighborhood as Clint Eastwood's, and the voice still isn't doing the job. Second, his exaggerated demeanor is that of a small-time tough, not someone confident he can kick ass wherever, whenever. (***)
And this driver has to remember all the 100,000 roads of Los Angeles, but Gosling shows only one thing at one time. When he's mooning after Irene, that's all he's doing. His blue eyes swim and whatever ruthlessness, torment, demons or scorpions he'd been trying to show are drowned. That's a big problem for a movie that depends on its main character's capacity for violence. Where there's no coil, you don't believe the spring.
Albert Brooks, whose performance as a producer gone psychopath is as good as you’ve heard, gets that in a way Gosling doesn't. He's scary just ordering Chinese food. The waiter forgets the fortune cookies, for a fractional instant all emotion flees Brooks' face, and the Siren feared the waiter might face the same fate as Spider in Goodfellas. It's that instant that shows how dangerous the character is, and not his "Where are my fucking cookies?"
But Brooks isn't around much until the final act. Instead, the movie spends an ungodly amount of time with an unconsummated love story between Driver and Irene. The Siren doesn't begrudge Refn this classic conceit: the interlude where it's established what the hero is fighting for. It's deeply unfortunate, however, that Gosling is fighting for the tapioca presence of Carey Mulligan, diligently overacting her underacting. She plays one note, that note being wounded innocence: eyes wide and slightly damp, lips pouted and slightly bruised. Gosling does his best to convince us that this constitutes irresistible allure, but that's a tall order, asking an actor to play convincing romance with a woman who's avoiding charm like the Spanish flu. Far more arresting are Gosling's scenes with the little boy, who manages a variety of emotion and reaction that Mulligan does not. Infuriating as the Siren found Mulligan's performance, she hesitates to blame the actress entirely; this may well be the way she was told to play it. When Irene lets out a laugh during a nature ramble with Driver, Refn cuts away like she just flashed us.
The critics who loved Drive either seem to find wounded innocence as endlessly fascinating as Refn does, or they shrug it off. But this isn’t something brief enough to ignore, like the Roberta Flack forest-sex in Play Misty for Me. Driver's scenes with Irene make up a good chunk of the movie, and she's around a lot even later. One lengthy shot has Irene at a mirror, in profile, putting a baby clip in her hair, then staring at her reflection. Is she afraid for herself, for her son? Is she melancholy at the thought of a man she can't have? Is she thinking, "Goddamn it, why can't I just hook up with a nice dentist for once?" The Siren can't tell you. Mulligan just looks mad at her hair. And when Driver's true nature is finally revealed to her, she lets fly with a slap that's the least believable moment in the movie, and that's saying something considering that we also see Christina Hendricks rob a pawnshop in five-inch stilettos.
By the end of the Irene section, the Siren was ready to inform Drive's partisans that they've got some nerve promising the return of Bullitt when after the opening credits roll most of what you get is a listless-white-people riff on In the Mood for Love. Then Hendricks showed up in those stilettos, and the goo was gone. (Good god, why couldn't she play Irene?) And from here on out the Siren was much happier, despite her occasional yelps. Once Gosling started acting deranged, the Siren starting believing the tough act a lot more. It's hard not to, when he stalks into a strip joint's dressing room carrying a hammer. Which he proceeds to use. Enthusiastically. While the strippers sit immobile and, I don't know, let their breasts air out. It's a great way to spice up the evergreen tough-guy-busts-up-a-massage-parlor episode, like setting a kneecapping in the Musée Rodin.
Brooks returns to show he had plenty of leftover pathology after Out of Sight, Ron Perlman hulks around complaining about anti-Semitism in the Mob, and Gosling stomps the everloving bejesus out of a bad guy in an elevator, in a scene the Siren found as effective as everyone else did. (Well, almost as effective. The kiss Gosling gives Mulligan just before going Full Metal Joe Pesci on the henchman's face lasts a lot longer than it would from the 4th floor down to the basement.)
Other niggles include the music which, while contemporary, sounds so 80s the Siren was mouthing at her notebook, "And people say I'm retro." The synth-soaked instrumentals aren't bad, and they certainly fit with Drive's dogged determination to cite everything from Thief to To Live and Die in L.A. to, according to Refn himself, Sixteen Candles. But there's also songs playing under some scenes with lyrics like "a real human being and a real hero" and "oh my love, look and see the sun rising through the river." Maybe it's supposed to be ironic counterpoint, but put that kind of stuff in a woman's picture and they'd call it camp.
Speaking of memories--the Siren has seldom encountered a movie so jam-packed with references, and she supposes part of the fun for filmheads is spotting them all, and trying to determine which are intentional and which are inadvertent. The Siren herself is still trying to figure out whether a scene of Driver entertaining Irene and her son by zipping down a freeway culvert was actually supposed to remind anyone of the drag race in Grease. But overall she wishes Refn had either studied the thematically freighted heroines of movies like Shane and Witness a little more, or stuck with what Danny Bowes calls “the ownage.”
(***) Corrected 9/18/11, per Mat and Tony Dayoub. Thanks for following my blog!