Let’s put to bed the concept of “style over substance.”
To those of us who, and I’ll be diplomatic here, react more strongly to cinematic “style” (i.e. the chrome and rims) than we do toward what usually is generally understood to be “substance” (i.e. the engine), Drive is unquestionably one of the must-see movies of the year. No contest.
But is style all it has to offer? And if it does, is that such a bad thing? As one of the most stalwart defenders of Brian De Palma (whose Alfred Hitchcock-riffing thrillers have long bore the brunt of anti-style crusaders’ wrath), I feel compelled to say there is actually no such thing as “style over substance.” Or, if there is, it’s as boring as substance without style.
In the case of movies like Drive, style IS the substance, and it’s because director Nicolas Winding Refn (anointed with an award at Cannes for this film) is such an expert practitioner that the movie succeeds where some of the more craven efforts of Guy Ritchie and Michael Bay fail.
Drive is stripped down to the bone on almost every level other than its own efforts to exude a highly specific, L.A. brand of cool.
The Zen-like hero, played by Ryan Gosling (who else?), is a car mechanic by day and a getaway driver by night. He has as little apparent personal motivation as his apartment has interior decoration. Cool.
Refn surrounds Gosling with a motley assortment of actors all seemingly recruited for their cachet, a la Tarantino. Albert Brooks. Christina Hendricks. Bryan Cranston. Oscar Isaac. Ron Pearlman. Cool.
Like a particularly Gen X-oriented video game, Refn scores his driving sequences against not just the cool, Moroder pulses from Cliff Martinez, but also ’80s trash-aping dark dub disco from Kavinsky & Lovefoxx, Desire and the Chromatics, making room for the love theme from Jacopetti & Prospero’s unspeakable grindhouse “classic” Goodbye Uncle Tom. Cool.
The title card is formed in pink slashes. Super cool.
As a heist goes bad and romantic tensions start to get potentially complicated between Gosling’s central, unnamed character (his screen credit is “Driver”), Refn consistently recoils from anything that might draw any focus away from his picture-perfect pastiche. Forget comparisons to Michael Mann. This is Michael Mannequin.
I know it sounds like I’m panning Drive, but the apparatus simply works because Refn’s blank-beautiful fixation on style and grace notes instead of scenes (Brooks’ last bit with Cranston is unforgettable) is a perfect match with Driver’s intractable nihilism. Though the movie’s on style overload, it’s what’s missing that’s going to continue haunting you long after those pink credits have finished rolling.
The new remake of Straw Dogs would seem to make a killer double feature with Drive, pun sadly intended.
You can’t say that the world was clamoring for an amped-up modern update of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 original, because that movie remains one of the most intense depictions of tables being turned outside of maybe Carrie or Dogville.
Indeed, writer-director Rod Lurie seems well aware of the original’s power, because most of the effective sequences have been lifted almost wholesale, even though he’s transposed the setting from Cornwall, England to the deep American South.
The original starred Dustin Hoffman as a nebbish expat professor who returns to his wife’s homeland, it’s implied, in order to escape the contentious atmosphere of campus unrest at home. Instead of finding solace, he finds himself at immediate odds with the violent, salt o’ the earth locals who, in the end, push him to his breaking point. There would be blood.
Lurie’s remake swaps out Hoffman’s milquetoast with James Marsden’s smarmy Hollywood screenwriter, a shift that works alright for the remake’s new milieu (i.e. Blue State vs. Red State), but which runs absolutely counter to the psychological underpinnings of Peckinpah’s standoff.
Peckinpah’s movie took no sides between Hoffman, his flirtatious-reckless wife Amy (Susan George) and the villagers who antagonize and are, in turn, antagonized by the two. The only side Peckinpah took, as it turned out, was against his audience, no more so than in the movie’s excruciating turning point as Amy is raped first by her ex-boyfriend and then by one of his slimy henchmen. Just as Peckinpah’s downright dangerous direction of that scene divided audiences, Hoffman’s daringly unlikable performance almost makes the brutishness surrounding him seem like a necessary counterweight.
In contrast, the lines of allegiance are clearly drawn in Lurie’s version. Marsden is smug, but he’s not arrogant. And even if he is, Lurie portrays the hicks he’s dropped amid with open hostility. In this version, everyone gets what’s coming to them.
The difference between the new Straw Dogs and Peckinpah’s is stark. The new one will run a few date nights. The original had the power to destroy relationships.