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Slow in the fast lane


The danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has mentioned the impetus for “Drive” in many interviews. He met with Ryan Gosling, who wanted him to be the director. The meeting didn’t go so well. They get in a car, listen to an REO Speedwagon song, and suddenly Refn has it: “Drive” is a movie about a guy who drives in his car and listens to songs. He tells Ryan this, weeping with relief or joy or some combination of both. They both agreed, and went to make the movie.

With the exception of one or two sequences depicting Gosling in his car, chewing on his toothpick, with gloved hands clutching the steering wheel a little too tightly, I thought Nicolas was full of crap when he told that story. Don’t be fooled. This is not a minimalist low key movie about a getaway driver. I think the first third may be a decent argument for that, but the rest of the story is generic, grade B mobster movie stuff that left me wondering what movie Nicolas set out to make.

There’s a scene towards the end where Ryan’s character stalks a mobster on a dark beach, wearing a mask. The whole concept looks like it was taken out of a John Carpenter movie. It was evocative, and very effective, but completely incongruous with everything that preceded it.

I felt there were several kinds of movies here, with all different styles at play. Refn references Michael Mann with his overhead night time LA shots. He references Tarantino with his overt violence. He calls up Carpenter at the end, on the beach. Under different circumstances I would have appreciated everything mashed up like that. Refn is singling himself out by pushing style over substance. But it is not a singular vision. It’s muddled. Here’s a movie where that experiment falls short of the goal line.

Style is what a director brings. Story is what a screenwriter brings. Let the former serve the latter under most circumstances. Unless you are David Lynch, or Refn’s older counterpart, Lars Von Trier. Then you may have some room to maneuver around the script because of pedigree. Generally Refn’s style is to subsume dialogue in favor of silent storytelling. Visually that is probably the most interesting thing you can try to do. Difficult, but ultimately rewarding, right? Let a look between two people say more than words ever can.

A lot of those moments come between Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams and Oscar Isaac. It’s a dramatic triangle that shows the most interesting directions that the movie can go. But after a heist gone wrong, it’s cut far too short (about 1/3 into the movie), leaving us with nothing else as interesting, except generic B movie mobster movie boredom.

The mobsters in this movie talk as if their dialogue was written by a screenwriter who just watched Pulp Fiction and set out to write his own version of that movie. Frankly I was surprised by the generic level of mobster-speak. I was surprised by the generic story choices, eschewing a compelling love story in favor of a routine mob plot.

There is nothing less interesting to me than bad mobster movies. I just don’t relate to guys who act like hardasses going around stabbing and shooting their way through an arcane underworld.  They are caricatures I have seen one hundred times before. I’m not super intrigued by intense violence either, unless it is driven by a dramatic context that feels emotional. (yes, Tarantino is the master of it)

The violence in this movie is not emotional. I was laughing during the most egregious violence. Probably not the intended effect, I am guessing. The violence comes with a certain fetishism. It would probably exist in this movie whether the script dictated it or not.

In the end, “Drive” is just another bad mob movie. Set aside the new wave (or is it new new wave if it’s made today) soundtrack, and the deep, penetrating looks from Ryan Gosling, and I don’t really know how entertained I would have been otherwise. While I am glad to see Albert Brooks on screen, I don’t really think playing a violent mobster was anything inspired. Brooks is a charming guy. He charmed his way through the 80s and 90s. Here it’s just a variation on the mobster character. Mobsters are always charming. They always pretend to be a good friend and then they do something violent that contradicts their character. Not a big surprise. At first I thought Refn made a smart choice casting Brooks, and in retrospect I resent that he was even used.


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