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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Drive


Drive (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011

 Drive is an L. A. action movie that can really tighten your throat and twist your guts. Story-wise, it’s lean, mean and stripped to the bone, but it’s also drenched with visual style. Directed by Nicolas Winding-Refn, the flashy Dane of The “Pusher” Trilogy, it’s about a movie stunt driver played by Ryan Gosling who steers getaway cars as a night job.

 At home, in his rare down-time, he falls in love with the woman down the hall in his building: nervous Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) just got out of the slammer and is now being forced into another heist himself by the shady moneymen Nino and Bernie (played by Ron Perlman, who is good, and Albert Brooks — who is tremendous).

 Drive is full of killingly well-executed action scenes and sharp acting and ironic/iconic dialogue and that ultra-snazzy visual style, all glowing colors and deep shadows — all of which helped win Refn the Best Director prize at the last Cannes Film Festival. It’s a movie built largely out of our memories of other movies, but that’s not necessarily bad. We know where this show is coming from early, as soon as we know Gosling’s character has no name but The Driver — just like Ryan O‘Neal in Walter Hill‘s 1978 The Driver, or Dwayne Johnson in the recent Faster.

 Neo-noir is this picture’s middle name, and its forebears are The Driver (of course) and John Boorman’s 1968 Point Blank, with Lee Marvin, and Peter Yates’ 1968 Bullitt, with Steve McQueen, and William Friedkin’s 1971 The French Connection, and Clint Eastwood’s modern shoot-‘em ups and Michael Mann‘s outlaw movies Thief (1980) and Heat (1995) — and even perhaps Jean-Pierre Melville‘s 1967 Le Samourai, which has a hero, hit man Jef (played by Alain Delon) who’s just as cool, just as silent, murderous and secretly romantic as Gosling’s Driver is here.

 As you’d expect from a movie with that kind of lineage, Drive begins with a great action-chase-street-set-piece, and it gives us a little — a very little — dip under Gosling’s opaque exterior (a mask, chewing a toothpick) by letting us know that he‘s a movie stunt driver by day, and a free-lance getaway driver by night or off-hours. (He allows his robber/clients only a five minute leeway to get to his car from the time they set after pulling their jobs).

 He’s also a prospective racing car driver, for whom his damaged auto shop owner/patron Shannon (Bryan Cranston) wants to get sponsorship — with Shannon turning to the very same criminal financiers, Nino and Bernie, who want Standard to pull a job for them, a job for which Standard wants The Driver to drive.

 And The Driver does, mostly because he’s in love with Standard‘s wife, Irene and his little son Benicio (Kaden Leos).


As the movie goes on, it alternates its always-thrilling action scenes, with the more emotional character stuff — including that very brilliant turn, an Oscar worthy one, by Brooks as the deceptively good-natured gangster, financier and ex-movie producer Bernie. (In the ‘80s Bernie made action movies that some critic called “Eurpopean,“ and it still boosts his ego. He likes to be considered a bright, artistic guy.) Drive also gets more violent, and the violent scenes are short, but extremely bloody. Since the movie plays some of its carnage with razor-sharp comic timing (especially Brooks‘ scenes), it becomes more and more disturbing as well.

 Drive definitely doesn’t suggest that crime pays, just that it can look good while it goes over ther edge. But it‘s true that there’s something sinister and icily detached about that comic violence. Drive suggests a world where brutality is rampant, where greed rules, where immorality thrives. But look around you: Is that view that wrong? The movie may be stylized, but it knows where the underworld dirt is.

 As for the film’s very classy cast, they sometimes seem to be getting paid for holding it back — especially Gosling, whose minimalism here makes vintage Eastwood or McQueen look like John Barrymore. But they’re all good.


Especially Albert Brooks, whom I’ve imprudently nominated for an Oscar, for Bernie. (Mind you, that’s a nomination — not, just yet, a win.) One of the keys to getting some acting Oscars is a display of versatility. And — except for his heavy role in Soderbergh’s Out of Sight — we certainly haven’t seen Brooks play many roles as wrenchingly, yet amusingly evil as this one: Bernie, an amoral gangster who smiles, chatters, makes a deal, screws people and, then with an empathetic-looking expression that suggests, falsely, “This will hurt me more than it does you“ leans over smiling, and slices them open — as if Martin Balsam, in Psycho, had suddenly turned into Anthony Perkins‘ mother.

 Bad taste? Not really. Bad man. Brooks makes it work so well, I’d have liked to see his screen time, if not his victim list, doubled.

It’s no surprise that the Danish émigré Winding Refn would direct a movie like Drive. His most prestigious credits are also ultra-violent films: the Danish-made “Pusher” Trilogy (a violent portrayal of the Copenhagen drug trade) and the British prison crime movie Bronson (with Tom Hardy as a real-life legendary prison brawler/troublemaker who called himself “Charles Bronson“).

 But it is something of a surprise that the script, an adaptation from James Sallis’ novel, was written by Hossein Amini, who started his career by adapting deep-dish literary work like Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” (in the 1996 Jude) and Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove” (the 1997 version with Helena Bonham-Carter and Charlotte Rampling).

  A Jamesian action movie? Here, the violence is glamorously shot and classy and sometimes funny — which does make it more unnerving. But though Amini and Refn may not have really made a classic neo-noir, at least they tried. They came close. A little more Albert Brooks maybe. Maybe not even as much as I wanted. Say, five minutes or less.


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4 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Drive”

  1. DriveIsOverrated says:

    Puh-leeze, enough with the love of this forgettable mess of a film. The only reason so many seem to like it is because it’s finally the fall season after a year of so much garbage (Win Win and Midnight in Paris aside), so you’re jumping the gun. Next time you want some substance with your style, I suggest you rewatch a movie that shows how it SHOULD be done: “A History of Violence.” Ryan Gosling, like Edward Norton, is just not believable. It’s incoherent, inconsistent, and self-indulgent.

  2. Captain Celluloid says:

    RE: DrivelsOverrated;

    I agree.

    Your post was incoherent, inconsistent, and self-indulgent.

    I agree with Mike, thanks.

  3. Kimberly says:

    I like this film because of its stylistic turns. It brought to mind an 80s vibe that made me think of “Miami Vice”. You watched it just as much for the look as for the stories.

    Also, I appreciated the portrayal of the budding relationship between the Driver and Irene and her little boy. They lent the Driver a bit of humanity–a thing in which he doesn’t indulge in his other life. I believe that if their relationship had been allowed to move a little further, the Driver would have loved Irene and Benicio, albeit imperfectly, and lived their hardscrabble life with a bit of mythical romance.

  4. Tracy says:

    Once again, The underbelly below the glitz of that city that seems to be obsessed with cars, indulgence and depersonalization has been revealed in Its true colors. LA seems to be as much of a character as the gangsters who inhabit it. Shot almost entirely in the dark, the only safe places are a run down apartment and the very car where the anonymous knight errant patrols the mean streets and practices his own form of rebellion against the city’s corruption and the lack of compassion by those in authority ( the police are almost non existent except for the sounds of a siren or a helicopter). As played bt Gosling, you can feel that the driver has something deep within and has a protective shell that matches the city’s until he is forced to act against it. A disturbing but fine film– one that will not be easy to forget. Wilmington’s review is accurate as far as it goes. But there is a lot more to this movie.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

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