After my first viewing in the theater these were my initial reactions: A really solid action movie, better and very different from most of the action genre, had a lot of 80s flair, pacing (both story and editing) was off, pretty intense.
Drive is a movie that tries too hard. It tries too hard to be a not typical action movie. It tries too hard to give emotions and actions gravitas. It tries too hard to be cool and intense. It just tries too hard. Drive is one of those movies that you really want to like, that gives you something cool and somewhat off the beaten path to talk about. Basically it is the cool new band few people know about that are about to have their hit single on a cell phone commercial, but you discovered them first. Unfortunately once you get past all of that you realize Drive should be commended on trying something different in a cookie cutter genre but ultimately ends up as just a better than average movie.
Now perhaps this is coming from the fact this is my second viewing. My first was in a small theater where the screen was nearly on top of me and I was sucked into the action much easier. The pulsing synth tones roiling my blood with every profound stare by Driver (Ryan Gosling) into Irene’s (Carey Mulligan) eyes, or into the Los Angeles night, or anywhere I guess. It was a “cool” movie because it was so different. Instead of having adrenaline spiking action (much like any blockbuster action movie ever) it was slow, the tension was allowed to build and the audience was allowed to get sucked in. However, upon second viewing (at home instead of in the theater) much of that tension is replaced with boredom and hilariously long staring fits.
In fact the movie can be summed up just through all those staring scenes. These go far and above the awkward moment pauses that the US version of The Office did so well in its early years. The staring between characters or off into the distance, which are usually accompanied by the same facial expressions (something that Gosling has a habit for and as I have dubbed it the Gosling face which can be seen in the image above), are the perfect example for the film’s shortcomings. I don’t know what the director was going for, I suspect that the lengthy staring (especially when Driver is staring into Irene’s eyes) were meant to make the audience feel a little uncomfortable while trying to add some gravity and emotional connection to the characters that was otherwise non-existent in the script. With such a lengthy stare into his “love’s” eyes, the audience is meant to feel no only is this a little uncomfortable but the feeling between the two characters is so intense words aren’t needed. Instead they come off as absolutely ridiculous and fairly humorous.
The staring points to a larger shortcoming the film has however. The pace of the movie, not only of the shots and editing but also the arc of the story, leaves a lot to be desired. The first half of the movie or so is meant to build up the romantic connection between Driver and Irene, but it never does due to the fact that we never see them be more intimate than Irene putting her hand over Driver’s while his hand is on the gear shift or any verbalization of their feelings for each other. Once we get past the set up of their relationship we are meant to believe Driver cares so much for Irene that he will help out her ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Issac) so that Irene, Standard and their son can have a peaceful life. Of course everything goes wrong from there, but the pacing of the movie still falters.
Sure there is more action and everything gets ramped up but it does this so suddenly, and so early into the movie (about half way through), that once we get past the most energetic car chase of the movie (in which Driver is trying to get away with Standard’s accomplice and the money that was just stolen) it returns back to it’s slower pace. Now of course the viewer doesn’t know that the movie won’t outdo itself by the end but I can tell you it doesn’t. In fact the third and final car chase (if you want to call it that) is so anticlimactic for a movie with its main character named Driver that you almost leave a little disappointed. The story has no rhythm or timing and because of that it’s fairly boring to watch the second time around.
It feels as though the reason this movie was given money to be made was solely based on the opening scene, the first car chase. More happens in those few minutes at the beginning than everything after the opening credits roll. The audience is immediately thrust into this character’s nefarious life. On display is Driver’s cool and collected manner as he’s trying to evade the police. He has planned the entire getaway out. Knowing that outrunning the police is foolish, he instead is vigilant of the police around him and is able to outsmart them to an extent and is able to outrun them at a second’s notice as needed, until ultimately we see him pull into a heavily populated parking garage right as a sporting event is being let out. The action sequence is more about tension than it is about speed or explosions, which is a very nice change-up to the normal car chase scene. The audience also gets a lot of information about the character and immediately are interested to figure out his motivations for doing this type of work. Unfortunately that is basically all the audience learns about the character, from then on it is more of Driver being a force rather than a character. Driver isn’t a real character (he doesn’t even have a real name) but something feels absent after the movie. Driver is a force capable of doing great and terrible things but as the movie is paced so poorly the tension doesn’t really come to a head near the end and that almost ruins the entire movie.
Aside from Gosling who does a fairly good job with the scraps he is given (basically act cool but intense at the same time) and the solid Mulligan (who is set up as an innocent and mouse-ish young adult and allows herself to get lost in the shuffle of the world), the rest of the movie is miscast. Much like Driver’s backstory, the backstories for both Albert Brooks‘s (not to mention it’s hard for me to think of him as anything but an over-protective clown fish) and Ron Perlman‘s “bad guy” mafia characters are absent which almost renders them as a non-threat. By the time the scene comes around, about two-thirds of the way in, where Albert Brooks stabs a low-level mafia enforcer, one of Brooks’s employees, with a knife in the eye it is too late. Again the movie that relies on stored up tension doesn’t properly give us a true threat to fear until the last third of the movie and that hinders the final showdown. In fact none of the movie characters are actual characters. They are more like cardboard cut-outs, they lack much depth and are basically just there so that the force who is Driver can go through them, this includes Bryan Cranston’s good guy who’s down on his luck character. They are archetypes that are never allowed to grow or change and go unexplained.
If you haven’t seen Drive it is worth your time, simply for being an action movie that doesn’t rely on action. However the first impression will be the best impression you’ll have. All subsequent viewings will most likely make you yearn for that first time Driver drove off into the nighttime with his 80s synth theme reminding us all that he is “a real human being…and a real hero,“even if the first part of the chorus isn’t entirely true.