You don't know how badly I want to love Drive. The crime/thriller from director Nicolas Winding Refn has to have some of the best editing, sound design, and structure of any action film I've seen in years. It's uber-stylish and filled with a great cast. Yet, the cast has nothing to work with. They're all playing static, two dimensional characters that just don't pop onscreen. The actors do what they can to raise the importance of their characters. It's just not enough to make you care about what happens to anyone.
Drive is all about underground crime in LA. Ryan Gosling stars as the Driver, a master stunt driver whose main source of income is getaway driving for criminals. He gives his fleeting collaborators five minutes to complete their job or else he'll leave them without a ride.
At the same time, Driver develops a relationship with his new neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan). Irene is raising her son Benicio on her own while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. Driver helps Irene out with her car and starts to look out for the two of them. When Standard gets out of jail, the criminal world collides with Driver's quiet public identity.
It's so hard to judge Drive. The story being told is excellent. It's tight, it's unpredictable, and it feels very suspenseful as it unfolds. Yet, I kept being reminded that the characters aren't developed beyond those two paragraphs of plot above this. How do you care for the safety of Irene and her family when they are nothing but generic bystanders to a generic crime world better suited to a video game?
The actors who really did create characters--Bryan Cranston as Driver's boss, Albert Brooks as the head of the mob, Christina Hendricks as a mob doll--don't have enough screen time to combat their lack of depth. You believe that Cranston and Brooks have a long history, but--generic crime beats aside--have no clue what that could entail. Hendricks gives a really nice arc to her ten or so minutes of screentime but her character is perhaps the most static of all. She exists only to move the plot in a slightly different direction.
The problem with Drive is backstory. The events of the main plot are new and interesting. How everyone got their is bland and generic as can be. Feud within the crime family? Detrimental loyalty to friends? Garages and restaurants as the gateway to organized crime? And? What else you got? Nothing.
All of that is a big shame. Winding Refn very much deserved the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for wringing every possible drop of tension, surprise, and thrill out of the under cooked adaptation of James Sallis' book by Hossein Amini. That a movie with a screenplay this bland feels sharp and exciting while it's happening is no small feat.
Unfortunately, Drive is a film that is hard to relate to. I felt no empathy for the characters and never thought anyone was really in danger. It really did feel like a video game where your avatar exists just to carry you through the story and no amount of death will stop you from reaching the final cut scene.
When Drive works, it really works. The car scenes and tense conversations between the various criminals are strong. It's the rest--the too quiet moments between new neighbors, the dreams of a better tomorrow, the walk away or watch what happens decisions--that fall short. People who love action/crime films will surely get a kick out of Drive. Everyone else might be left wanting a whole lot more than a few good chase scenes.
Thoughts? I'd love to hear what some crime or action films fans have to say about this one. Sound off below.