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'Drive' offers road thrills but loses some critics with gore

September 16, 2011 |  2:02 pm

The new neo-noir thriller "Drive" speeds into theaters this weekend with a Cannes best-director award in the trunk (for Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn) and star Ryan Gosling up front, playing a wheelman with ice water in his veins. The critics are unanimous that Refn and Gosling have delivered a stylish picture, but they're split on whether there’s any substance at its center.

The Times' Kenneth Turan gives the film a mixed review, calling it "a neon-lit crime story made with lots of visual style" but adding that it is "in love with both traditional noir mythology and ultra-modern violence, a combination that is not ideal." Turan notes that Refn is a director known for violent fare but writes that "the mayhem here so clashes with the high style and traditionalism of the rest of the film that when the bloodletting goes into overdrive, so to speak, it throws you out of the picture, diluting the mood rather than enhancing it."

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert is more positive. He labels Gosling's laconic character, known only as the Driver, "an existential hero" and compares him to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name and to Alain Delon in "Le Samourai" (the resemblance is not lost on other critics). Ebert writes: "'Drive' is more of an elegant exercise in style, and its emotions may be hidden but they run deep. Sometimes a movie will make a greater impact by not trying too hard."

A.O. Scott, of the New York Times, doesn't see much behind the film's high style: "'Drive' is somber, slick and earnest, and also a prisoner of its own emptiness, substituting moods for emotions and borrowed style for real audacity." What saves the film from "arch tedium," Scott says, is its supporting cast: "[Bryan] Cranston's wheezing, anxious loser; Christina Hendricks's seething, taciturn underworld professional; and above all [Albert] Brooks's diabolically nebbishy incarnation of corruption and venality."

In Slate, Dana Stevens deems "Drive" a "compact, masterful thriller." Stevens writes, "It has rich, complex characters … and a storyline that's both emotionally engaging and almost sickeningly suspenseful." The one exception, according to Stevens, is Carey Mulligan's character, Irene, a typical damsel in distress.

J. Hoberman, in the LA Weekly, views the film as a retro pastiche, "synthesizing 'Miami Vice's' languid dissolves and neon-limned dive bars, 'Blade Runner's' nocturnal skylines and floating overhead angles, and 'Top Gun's' slow dollies and MTV-friendly lyrical montage interludes." Hoberman adds, "Gosling has the timing to carry it off, but the professional here is Refn. This grindhouse risibility is totally strategic -- at once counterpoint to the movie's old-school suspense and an antidote to its out-front sentimentality."

New York Magazine's David Edelstein doesn't mince words, calling Refn's latest film "higher trash." It is, Edelstein writes, "every bit as dumb as August's 'Conan the Barbarian' but awash in neon-lit nightscapes and existential dread, with killings so graphic that you can't entirely believe what you're gagging at. (You'll never have to ask, 'Is that person dead?')"

Depending on audiences' stomachs for violence, "Drive" could be an exciting underworld dash or a bloody, bumpy ride.


'Drive' movie premiere

'Drive': The characters, the billboards

Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn share the ride

-- Oliver Gettell

Photo: Ryan Gosling, right, in 'Drive.' Credit: Richard Foreman / Film District

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