Sunday, October 02, 2011

I am the Passenger

Declaration of interests: I do not drive, I frequently use public transport and I especially like trains.

Drive launches off the starting grid like a Formula One racing car... No... Drive puts its foot on the accelerator and doesn't let up... No, not that either...

Starting my review of a film called Drive with a half-baked car metaphor would be cheap and obvious, and I am not going to be tempted into it... Ironic commentary about whether or not I should start my review like that, on the other hand, is self-reverential and cool...

Levity aside, the first ten minutes of Drive are brilliant. A man known only as Driver looks out at a neon-lit cityscape while, in voice over, he sets out his terms and conditions. He speaks in a calm, authoritative but surprisingly high pitched monotone: "If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I am yours no matter what. One minute either side of that and I'm gone. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun... I drive. You won't be able to contact me on this number again." Then, the man, until now only identifiable by the golden scorpion sewed into the back of his white leather jacket, steps away from the window, throws a mobile phone down onto the motel bed, picks up a heavy sports bag and leaves.

Had the film fulfilled on the deadpan promise of that opening and the getaway that follows I would now be raving about a new classic. Unfortunately, it does not. What starts out as pulp noir, morphs into romantic fairy tale, gritty crime pic and, finally, ultra-violent avenging angel fantasy - and all sense of verisimiltude gos out the window.

What the film lacks is any sense of character. One look at the similarly stylish, John Huston crime film, The Big Sleep, and the difference is obvious. Humphrey Bogart and Laren Bacall did not play well-rounded characters one might recognise from everyday life; far from it, they were larger than life and rejoiced in their pulpy origins. Character does not have to mean Ken Loach or Mike Leigh; Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane are good enough. Drive, however, seems confused by that distinction. There are too many boring scenes. I suppose that when Driver carries his love interest's groceries into her apartment, bests her six year old son at a staring contest and then lingers to enjoy a glass of water, there is supposed to be some sort of frison or undercurrent. But the scene is entirely domestic and doesn't have the zing or sparkle to elevate it above soap opera. Take this exchange:

Driver to Irene, 'Thanks for the glass of water'.
Irene to her son, 'Say bye'.
Son to Driver, 'Bye'.
Driver leaves.

Now compare that to this exchange in The Big Sleep:

Vivian, 'So you do get up, I was beginning to think you worked in bed like Marcel Proust.'
Marlowe, 'Who's he?'
Vivian, 'You wouldn't know him, a French writer.'
Marlowe, 'Come into my boudoir'.

Now I know that Driver is not supposed to be a wise-cracking private dick but the point still stands. Also, I know it may only be an aesthetic difference, but I don't really like the vogue for middle aged gansters who wear bad tracksuits; I much prefer the well-tailored low-lives we used to get in films like The Godfather, which at least maintained the pretence that there was more going on in their lives than merely violence. But therein lies the film's biggest probelm; everything from the plot (part The Driver, part Taxi Driver) to the look and style of the gangsters (The Sopranos) to the look and style of the violence (Gasper Noe) seems to be taken from somewhere else. What results is a film that is so derivative, so self-concious, so pleased with its own sense of self-awareness, it is perilously close to disappearing up its own exhaust - I am the Passenger - Keyword description


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