Sep 16, 2011

REVIEW: Drive (dir. Refn)

Drive is something else: a cocktail of candy-colored retro-eighties stylings and convulsive ultra-violence, in which people go around stomping on each other's heads to the sound of airy-smooth synth pop. The other major activities in this film, apart from executing hand-brake u-turns, are 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. Gosling plays a getaway driver who chews on toothpicks and wears a satin jacket with a scorpion on the back, and if that isn't iconic enough for you: he's known only as The Driver. I always knew that the grin playing in the corner of Gosling's mouth was a sign that the unimpeachably scuffed naturalism of his performances wasn't entirely to be trusted: there was someone who longed to be a movie star in there, waiting to get out. Together with Crazy Stupid Love, Drive constitues something of a coming-out party for Gosling who here pushes his method-moochiness closer to classic less-is-more movie-star minimalism, channelling Steve McQueen and Rumblefish-era Mickey Rourke, wielding silences and silken sotto voce line deliveries that push the performance close to parody. I half expected a mob of Tigerbeat-reading teens to spill around the corner and mob him, instead of which we have young Carey Mulligan playing a slightly unlikely Los Angelino who needs protection from a violent gang. The film makes great hay with Gosling's gallant streak although I didn't buy his wild swing into psychopathology at the halfway mark. An apt summary of his movie career, which started withThe Notebook and then took a sudden left turn for roles in which he got to smoke crack or cross dress. There's a callowness to some of these explorations, to be sure — the sense of ex-Mouseketeer over-correction, trying on more darkness-of-soul than was rightfully his. Gosling is part of a generation of movie stars — including Kirsten Dunst, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johannson, Justin Timberlake — for whom the term 'child star' means nothing for the simple reason that everyone is a child star these days: 12 is simply when most Hollywood careers get started. The result is radically foreshortened careers, like butterflies: your teens are your hey-day, your twenties the time you experiment and deconstruct your stardom, and if you haven't won your Oscar by the time you're 30 then forget it. The 'method' used to be the way actors in their 30s and 40s fortified their performances with real-life experience, but what have these guys got, in terms of lived experience, other than the experience of being stars? The result if that for all their talent, their performances suffer from an experiental dearth — an empty rattle at their heart. I felt it during last year's Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman jumped through the hoops for Darren Aronofsky, apologising endlessly for her lack of a dark side, trying desperately to get some mileage on her clock. That's what the film was about: a young artist attempting to speed-dial experience into her art. And I felt it watching the Driver who is set up as a sleek escapologist, the kind of guy beloved of Elmore Leonard who casually threads his way to the exit while everyone waves guns around — and then, an hour into the picture, he takes a sudden leftward lurch into violence himself. A big mistake. It's not the violence I disliked — which is instructively shocking — but the mess it makes of his character: an Leonard cool-cat mashed into a Scorsese hothead. I'm not sure that people will notice or care. The picture casts a spell. It's poisoned candy, all sugar and sting, with an acrylic, ersatz kick — with echoes of Michael Mann's Thief, Walter Hill's The Driver and John Hughes's Pretty In Pink. Even the Driver himself works part-time as a movie stunt driver, as if every self-respecting criminal thug dreams of a career in movies. This is their movie — viciously shallow, thoroughly enjoyable, noir lit with a vivid neon glare. B+