Theatrical release: 09/16/2011 DVD Date: 01/31/2012
Rating: R Running Time: 100 minutes
Note(s): Screenplay adapted from the 2005 crime novel Drive by James Sallis.
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Review: Once again I find myself deeply disappointed in a film because I had the wrong expectation going in of what it was about. I assumed — incorrectly, it turns out — that this was going to be a crime thriller. Instead, it's a love story of two mismatched people, who were probably never intended to be together in the first place. Cue the violins. A violent love story, but one all the same. Yes, there's a crime subplot tacked on here, but it's almost presented as an afterthought.
Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed character, simply referred to as Driver, who has a number of part-time jobs: stunt driver, auto mechanic, and getaway driver for criminals. He's good at all three and seamlessly moves from one to the other. And all three play a part in the storyline.
The film opens with a tension-filled 10 minute vignette demonstrating Driver's skills at, well, driving. A promising start, indeed. But then for the next 45-50 minutes — it actually seems like hours — we're subjected to Driver wooing his neighbor, Irene, a single mother with a young boy. This lengthy interlude wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so incredibly unbelievable. The boy's father is in prison so it isn't as if Irene is unfamiliar with the criminal element. Yet she freely opens the doors to her apartment and her heart to Driver, knowing absolutely nothing about him. Worse, when she does know something about him — she later sees him violently bash a man's head in — she is still charmed by him. Driver is, to put it charitably, a psychopath and no mother in the world would willingly expose her child to such a person. But Irene is smitten and love conquers all … or some such nonsense. It's really quite silly.
Finally — finally — at about the one hour mark the movie's crime plot begins in earnest. To be sure, there were a few setup scenes while Driver and Irene were getting to know each other, so it doesn't come as an altogether surprise when Driver is caught up in a job that goes completely awry and the bodies starting piling up, more than a few at the hands of Driver himself. But it's a case of too little plot far too late in the movie to make much of a difference.
I'm not sure what the screenwriter (Hossein Amini) was thinking here. To be fair, I haven't read the book from which this film is adapted, but I find it hard to believe the author (James Sallis) devoted more than half his pages to Driver's star-crossed love affair with Irene. By rushing into the — what seems to be … it's kind of hard to tell — well-crafted crime story a lot of the impact is lost, especially when it's papered over with unusual levels of violence. An attempt by the director, I suppose, to add contrast to Driver's superficially meek character.
Speaking of the director, I have to say the film has a wonderful look to it. I could have done without many of the slow-motion scenes where nothing happens, but they certainly set an atmospheric tone. There's definitely an art-house quality to the film that I really appreciated. I'm a bit ambivalent, however, about Gosling's performance. When he's not threatening to hammer a bullet into someone's head or bashing one in, he has a vacant look about him. I get it that that look is supposed to appear weak, to keep his enemies off guard, that he's his own man and all that, but it gets a little old after a while. Still, there's no denying he has a screen presence, that he dominates this film in a mostly good way with a nuanced understated performance.
I enjoyed what little of this purported crime thriller was actually a crime thriller, though I think it could have been vastly improved with more story and less overt violence … and a complete rewrite of the whole Driver/Irene relationship, which is unbelievably wrong in so many ways. Yes, I was disappointed in Drive, not necessarily because of what it is, but for missing what it clearly could have been.