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Monday, October 10, 2011


It shouldn’t be so hard to figure out whether or not you liked a movie, but Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive is so variegated and diverse in style that it turns the simple process of forming an opinion into a math problem. To derive “yes, I liked it” or “no, it wasn’t that good” you must first separate the parts of the movie you enjoyed, tote them all up, and then compare the total to the parts you didn’t enjoy. I can’t imagine the person who liked every part of Drive, but neither can I believe that anyone could have found it wholly uninteresting.

For one thing, car chases are inherently cool. In Drive, it’s clear that some effort and thought was put into these scenes to differentiate them from the ho-hum versions seen in most straight action thrillers. The point of the chases is to show us just how good Ryan Gosling’s character is at what he does. He’s better at it than just about any action hero we’ve seen lately.

But in between car chases, Drive tends to meander a little too pointedly. Some of this unavoidable, due to the choices made for the characters. Gosling’s driver is such an impenetrable cipher of a human being. The actor does a great job of rendering the character inscrutable and indecipherable. Unfortunately, the requisite pauses and delays in conversation occasionally weigh down the surrounding movie.

Of more serious concern are the deficiencies in the supporting cast. This movie has an old-fashioned sensibility as regards to women, which means that Carrie Mulligan and Christina Hendricks are given little to do to distinguish their roles. Mulligan is a damsel in distress, noir-style. She must be protected at all costs and has no hope of doing anything in that regard for herself. Hendricks is especially wasted as a low-life’s girlfriend and accomplice in the heist that kicks the plot into high-gear. Neither role is up to the level of the actress cast, which is a shame.

Luckily, the supporting cast is rounded out by a trio of excellent performances. Bryan Cranston as a man made meek by misfortune, some of it caused by his own misdeeds, portrays his character with the deference to strength such a lot in life would engender. Ron Perlman is always reliable, and his tough-guy character is appropriately detestable.

The real star, though, is Albert Brooks playing against type as Bernie Rose, an undefined black-market kingpin with swaggering confidence and a deadly ability with sharp objects. Brooks is famous for playing angry neurotics, but here he flips that anger into a personality with swagger and confidence, and the result is a truly chilling movie villain.

I think for most people, the question of whether or not they enjoyed Drive will hinge on two variables. The first is their tolerance for bloodshed. Drive’s violence is right on the border between disturbingly real and cartoonishly overdone, and either way that can bother the squeamish. The more important factor is what they think of Gosling’s character and the performance. The nameless driver is impossible to read, intentionally wooden and irritatingly withdrawn. In the hands of a lesser actor these traits may have reflected poorly on the actor, but Gosling has a way of letting you know he knows exactly what he’s doing and why. When he pauses for an agonizing length before replying to a question, you get the sense that the character is trying to decide exactly what to say, exactly how much to reveal. It’s a studied and intriguing choice for an actor to make. Ultimately, I think it’s what saves the movie from some curious stylistic choices.

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