Driving Down the Road to Nowhere Interesting

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Drive was one of the best-reviewed movies of last year, both a critical darling and a cult hit. When I finally watched it, I reacted as I suspected I would – a state that can best be described as underwhelmed admiration. It’s certainly stylish, though I thought its brand of cool was of the “forced and self-conscious” variety. With the pervasive synthesizer, the flamingo-pink credits, the LA-noir aerial shots, that scorpion jacket, the cerebral car chases, Nicolas Winding Refn has created a film in which substance only exists as a vehicle for style. Unfortunately, that particular vehicle has nowhere to go, and for evidence we need look no further than Ryan Gosling’s central performance, which is the very embodiment of the phrase “all style and no substance”.

As Tom Shone described it, this film busies itself with “a) staring at a moody Ryan Gosling, b) being stared at moodily by Ryan Gosling, and c) staring moodily at Ryan Gosling while he takes you in staring at him, moodily. Boy is this film in love with its star.” That, essentially, is what animates the film. There’s a shallowness to the whole production, and Gosling masks the shallowness with his impassive glare – it’s intentional, surely, that he emotes just as capably when his head is beneath a large rubber mask as when his sharply angled face is filling the frame.

All of this would be acceptable if not for the fact that the character, and the plot, hinges on the relationship Gosling’s Driver develops with Carey Mulligan’s Irene and her son Benicio. Like the rest of the film, this relationship is as shallow as the pools of blood that begin to form with alarming regularity as the story progresses. The Driver veers from nearly mute introvert to ferocious seeker of vengeance due to the intense depth of his feelings for Irene, and for that to work, for the audience to buy into that, it needs to be one hell of a connection.

But the film is uninterested, or incapable, of depicting how those feelings developed except in the most cliched manner imaginable – a nice day trip and a largely silent date is the extent of their romance. Instead, we must believe in their love because of Hollywood’s immutable Law of the Attractive Couple – if two good-looking characters make eye contact and smile, they are destined for a love so intense us plain mortals can’t possibly understand it. Ideally, this sort of lame narrative convention would be relegated to shameless crowd-pleasers such as Avatar or Slumdog Millionaire, but Drive suggests critical darlings can get away with it too.

All of this left me with thinking the obvious – Drive is considered a serious movie because of its demeanour rather than its content. It is essentially a slowed-down Jason Statham flick, with about as much intelligence. Attempts to depict it as a “thinking person’s action movie” suggests that what thinking people want is ponderous pacing.

Which explains, I believe, why the film is so acclaimed – not unlike Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I moaned about here, the film signals its seriousness by its deliberate slowness, the cinematic characteristic most at odds with mainstream crowd-pleasers. And as a result, and like I said about TTSS, it’s the sort of film that allows critics to signal their sophistication. 
But while TTSS was merely baffling, Drive is actually quite unpleasant. As a pseudo high-brow Jason Statham actioner, it can’t afford to be flippant about violence, like most Hollywood action movies – what Winding Refn provides instead is deeply gratuituous and shocking. Which would be disagreeable enough, without the hint of glee the film seems to take in the stomping of heads and slitting of arteries. This isn’t a gritty exploration of the lengths a man will go to protect the one he loves, or some other trite excuse for violent content; Drive evidently gets its rocks off by exploding skulls and hammering hands.

Drive is pared back, for sure, and pulses with self-confidence, and I guess there’s plenty of room for stylish, deliberate, empty thrillers – hell, some of my favourite movies fit that description. But we should not mistake it for serious art. At least Jason Statham knows he’s making trash, and the audience certainly knows they’re watching it. I’m not so sure if Refn is so honest, and it seems a large part of the audience isn’t so aware either.

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