When it was released in 2011, Drive received near-universal critical acclaim, and it had a big influence on popular culture which endures to this day. Drive features impressive cinematography and some great visuals, with its Los Angeles setting used to good effect. It also became known for its soundtrack, which marked the beginning of the craze for synth-based music. With an ostensibly hard-boiled plot, extreme, stylized violence, and a strong supporting cast, it’s easy to see why Drive was so successful.
However, good movies need to be able to stand the test of time. Revisiting Drive for the first time in a few years, I was surprised to see just how shallow the film’s appeal really is. Drive has a rudimentary plot which follows an unnamed protagonist, portrayed by Ryan Gosling. Gosling is a highly-skilled getaway driver who also works as a stuntman and a mechanic. The film’s first scene, which sees Gosling driving away from a burglary, is by far its best. Car chases are a staple of Hollywood action films, but this driving sequence subverts the usual tropes by focusing on the technical aspects of driving; and it builds tension by showing the driver trying to hide the car and avoid the police, instead of just driving like a maniac.
It’s a shame there aren’t more scenes like this. Indeed, even the first time we saw Drive, T. and I felt like it never delivered on the promise of this sequence. Instead, the first ten minutes are the highlight of the film, and what you get afterwards is a one-dimensional crime melodrama punctuated by grisly violence. Gosling’s character is laconic, almost silent, and largely inexpressive, so much so that you wonder why Gosling got so much praise for his acting. He begins a flirtation with his next-door neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and gets caught up in some criminal shenanigans after her husband gets released from prison. Honestly, you try and do someone a favour, and end up in the middle of a million-dollar heist with corpses everywhere.
Drive’s plot is serviceable and uncomplicated. The big problem is with the script and characterization. Gosling’s relationship with Irene is poorly motivated: they barely say anything, just staring at each other for minutes on end, with Mulligan smirking mischievously and Gosling sucking on a toothpick. Drive received some criticism for “whitewashing” the character of Irene, who was a Hispanic woman in the original novel. In this case, there’s no question that the casting of Mulligan was a terrible mistake. Not only does she have zero chemistry with Gosling, but pretty, polite Carey Mulligan is a hopelessly unlikely match for her Hispanic jailbird husband. For God’s sake, this is the actress who played Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.
Considering her husband’s imminent release from jail, Irene’s flirtation with Gosling feels not only dangerous, but downright reckless. The scenes featuring all three characters are cringeworthy, and the scene where Irene’s (older) husband describes how he picked up her up at a party, when she was seventeen years old, was frankly repulsive. The relationship between Gosling and Irene is supposed to be the emotional pivot of the film, but instead the whole thing just feels weird and unsettling.
Drive features a clutch of popular actors, with small parts for the likes of Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, and Christina Hendricks, but it doesn’t give them much to work with; unless you include being murdered in new and inventive ways. The dialogue is bare-bones and functional, mainly consisting of characters explaining what’s going to happen, what their motivations are, and attributing characteristics to one another. The subject matter and the Los Angeles setting meant that Drive kept bringing to mind Michael Mann films like Heat and Thief, but Drive pales in comparison.
Drive feels like the definitive hipster movie. It wants people to think that it’s sophisticated, and to that end it uses pretentious editing, with a preference for long, lingering shots. Its graphic violence is over-the-top, and will feel wearyingly familiar to anyone who has seen other films by the director, Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s a hallmark of his self-important work, and a crutch to make his films feel mature and substantial when they’re in fact emotionally juvenile.
There’s no question Drive looks and sounds good, with pretty cinematography and good tunes. But in the end, it’s a textbook triumph of style over substance.