Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Drive (2011) ***½

Watching this modern-day noir/heist movie is like eating popcorn. It’s delicious, but you are hungry again in an hour. Still, for a popcorn movie it has a lot going for it.

Ryan Gosling plays the nameless main character, whom we’ll call The Driver. This quiet, perhaps semi-autistic loner spends his time working as a mechanic, stunt-driving for Hollywood movies, and driving get-away cars for heists. He is very good at all three jobs, but he doesn’t seem to have anyone in his life except his employer Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who sets up all his legal and illegal driving gigs. The Driver moves through the world quietly, observing, taking few risks, and operating like a precision machine when he is behind the wheel.

One day The Driver makes the acquaintance of Irene (Carey Mulligan), the cute girl down the hall. Irene is almost as into long, intense silences as The Driver, so they get along great. Spending time with Irene and her son starts to bring The Driver out of his shell, but the interlude ends when Irene’s husband Standard returns home from prison. It turns out Standard is a fairly decent human being who wants to turn his life around, but criminals from his past pressure him to commit another robbery for them, threatening his family. Concerned for Irene, The Driver signs on to help Standard pull off the job. Everything goes to hell, and suddenly The Driver finds himself on the wrong side of the wrong side of the law.

Know right now that “Drive” is extremely violent and bloody. The sheer level of brutality is clearly gratuitous, but in a sense the gore is a metaphor for the changes in The Driver’s life. When he is isolated within himself, his life is clean and neat. Then he gets involved with people, and things suddenly get very messy. We also suddenly get to see what a badass The Driver really is, making me wonder, “Who the hell is this guy?” Unfortunately, that question is never answered. Instead, we get treated to heart-pounding ass-kicking and car chases as The Driver tries to protect his adopted family from rogue gangsters (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman).

Everything about this film is done with style. The camera-work should set a new standard for noir films. Albert Brooks is affably chilling, and I wish there had been more of him. Likewise, the car chases are superb, as befits the film’s title, but there aren’t enough of them.

In a movie full of restrained performances, Ryan Gosling is so restrained he is practically in a straight-jacket. His part is well-played, but the best scenes are the ones where his self-contained intensity is balanced by someone with a lot of personality. I get that The Driver and Irene are kindred spirits, but the scenes between them tend to drag. I think the solution to that would have been more scenes with Albert Brooks, who absolutely owns the screen every time he appears.

Ultimately, “Drive” is a bit heavier on style than substance, and I was ever so slightly disappointed by it. The action is intense (too intense for some), but I wanted a little more explication of the character of The Driver. Another car chase or two wouldn’t have hurt, either. Still, “Drive” is a nice addition to the modern-day heist genre, fitting in well with movies like “Heat” and “The Town.”

3.5 stars

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