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GREY MATTERS: Nicolas Winding Refn’s interestingly terrible DRIVE is a feat of hocus-pocus

GREY MATTERS: Nicolas Winding Refn's interestingly terrible DRIVE is a feat of hocus-pocus

By Ian Grey
Press Play Contributor

Drive is an empty bully of a film, and its creator, Nicolas Winding Refn, is a swindler, a Generation-Whatever Malcolm McLaren whose proven high-art skills are completely absent in this U.S. directorial debut.

The film coerces audiences through an overwhelming, belligerent accruement of cultural stuff, including the bogus gravitas of sophomore semiotics, alluring but irrelevant fetish objects, and Jeopardy-level allusions to high culture. Such elements are meant to make the audience feel clever while watching this film as a beyond-hip house and synth-pop soundtrack reminds you that your CD collection could never compete with it. Cravenly expecting you to buy into all this nonsense, as well as the notion that there’s nothing more hardcore-Sartre than a fairly agreeable man-child in a shiny white satin jacket, Drive banks on American aesthetic insecurities and the tendency of some viewers to fill empty-canvas art with invented meanings. Refn’s interestingly terrible film is as close to being nothing as you can get while still having something to run through a projector.

Meanwhile, the monoculture buzz surrounding Drive has nothing to do with a sudden mass desire for the latest from the bright lunatic who gave us the gorgeously transcendent but exhausting Valhalla Rising and Bronson, a convulsively inventive, incredibly brutal film about the horrors of deformed masculinity that never forgot the broken humanity of its eponymous antihero. No, Drive instead suggests a new brand of cool, one created when an infantilized strain of Comic-Con and fanboy culture discovered serious film. It’s fanboy haute couture, with its prettified coloring book simulation noir a safe pre-adolescent fantasy dotted with Mattel Hot Wheels, Peter Pans and Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Ryan Gosling, who already played a child-man in love with a doll in Lars and the Real Girl, is the perfect actor for this adult baby world.

But back to nothing. In his quest for maximum nullity, Refn’s given us a film noir that isn’t, a ‘love story’ that never materializes, and an action film with little of it shot in arty-explosive bursts — a sort of fancy-schmancy chaos cinema — instead of the rhapsodic kinetics of a Peter Yates (Bullitt) or Paul W.S. Anderson (Death Race). And for the plot, Refn — working from a screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on James Sallis’ novel — goes for the barest of bones.

(NOTE: There is one spoiler here.)

Drive is about a quiet young fellow (Gosling) with the best kid leather driving gloves money can buy. He wears that aforementioned satin jacket, the back of which sports an embroidered scorpion patch, and sports impeccably cut hair, presumably kept in place with products that contain lots of petroleum. Nobody asks him his name and he doesn’t give it; perhaps he saw Walter Hill’s The Driver at an impressionable age.

Nameless Driver works as a stunt driver in the movies while taking less savory gigs at night. His boss (Bryan Cranston) hooks him up with a mobbed-up scum bag played by Albert Brooks, who’s faintly interested in the idea of Driver tricking out a car so he can race it somewhere. Meanwhile, Driver also meets and likes a Manic Pixie named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her kid (Kaden Leos). He likes the mom enough to help prevent her violent, ex-con, loser of a husband (Oscar Isaac) from getting killed due to some amorphous shit he did in the joint.

All of this leads to a robbery that goes astray. A redhead played by Christina Hendricks gets her head blown off and Driver, his girl Irene and her kid all end up as mob targets of one sort or another, with our boyishly laconic wheelman arguably becoming a default hero defined by the film’s supporters as existential, because he doesn’t seem to care if he bleeds to death.

Let me clarify that I do not hate or even dislike this film, and god knows I’ve projected myself onto some blank canvasses. And there are tiny pleasures here. The painstakingly assembled electronica soundtrack by Cliff Martinez and a variety of other like-minded artists really is terrific and at times even threatens to become a sort of audio libretto to what’s not happening on-screen. The give-and-take between Brooks, Cranston and Ron Perlman offers the sparkle of old pros having a hoot, although Cranston’s performance can meander into overly twitchy weirdness.

As for the media gush about Albert Brooks playing a schmuck — I’m at a loss there. I mean, Albert Brooks has always played a schmuck; the only difference is that this time, he likes to slice people open with a straight edge razor.

Speaking of blood: I’m guessing the rationale of hiring Hendricks was that such a high ticket attraction would dupe viewers into thinking she was — how silly — a character, and not something to attach squibs to. Still, her obliteration is nothing compared to anything that happens in any given True Blood episode and yet cineastes out there are making like Refn is the second coming of Peckinpah. He isn’t. With his sudden splats, cutaways from violence and skilled sound design, he’s more like the new Tobe Hooper.

In other news, Refn’s newfound infatuation with semiotics is, if nothing else, proof his perversity didn’t die crossing Hollywood and Vine. Portentous signs and images are everywhere. For no known reason, the Los Angeles City Hall building overlooks scenes like the Eye of Sauron. A shot lingers on a super retro “BIG 6 MARKET” sign. Other signage announces “Godless America” like a sore thumb of lameness. It’s a real heart-sinker when you think how previous Refn films — fearless, strange, conceptually conflicted on purpose — actually dealt with Big Themes — Nature vs. Essential Human Identity, Identity vs. The State — as opposed to the theme at hand: Dane director dupes Americans hungry for Next Big Thing.

Meanwhile, at the screening I attended, I heard caws about noir this, and later read stuff about existential that. As a noir, Drive is a non-starter because there is no malign fate pushing Driver into a dark corner, no fatale, no awful thing that won’t stay in the past. No-Name Driver has a hard time of it because he constantly makes stupid decisions. So does Eric Cartman. Does that make South Park noir?

Meanwhile, Driver likes driving, and lives pretty much as he pleases, which would seem to preclude any thoughts of existential suffering or even mild world-weary question-asking. That is, until his boneheadedness returns, and then he’s just blasé about it, making him a hipster with a defeatist streak.

Actually, there is one great scene in Drive. It sits there, out of place, like a Post-it for Refn’s next, good film, the one that would actually meet the height requirement for film noir. Driver and Irene are in an elevator. Some terrible darkness in Driver’s gut says the other guy in the elevator is bad news, so he just up and starts beating the crap out of the guy as the elevator dings at Level 1.

But Driver can’t stop beating up this guy and we hear his victim’s skull crumbling as Irene looks on in horror at the monster that her Peter Pan has revealed himself to be. Their eyes meet, Gosling gets that woebegone, lost-boy Gosling look, and the audience is forced to ask themselves: What if he just killed some guy who never hurt anyone? What if the hero’s boyishness covers a real monster — and the hero doesn’t even know it?

A movie like that, that’d really be something.

But until we see it, the sporting thing to do is congratulate the young, hot director for his canny entry into the American market. Drive is indeed an impressive feat of hocus-pocus. Nicolas Winding Refn has accomplished the impossible — that of selling a film on the merits of qualities it so plainly doesn’t possess.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column “Grey Matters” runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn’s films, click here.

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