We’ve seen this movie before. The hero does bad things but is not a bad man. He’s singlemindedly very very good at something that other people use for evil, but he’s pure of spirit. He is good at what he does but not very good at any other aspect of life; he’s a naif, a child. His skill and singlemindedness define him as a good person, even if he commits illegal acts; the only victims of his actions (at least, the only victims we get to see) are themselves bad people. The heroine is also a pure spirit, and an innocent caught up in a bad situation not of her making. Ultimately, it turns out that the bad men who use the hero and the bad men that are causing problems for the heroine are the same bad men, and the hero must turn against them, using his exceptional skill at one single thing to singlemindedly destroy them. He saves the heroine but cannot save himself; he is too innocent and simultaneously too stained by the things he’s done to live.
This is a very very good story. It has pathos and tragedy, dramatic tension and romance. We like to be able to see a cool guy do cool bad things while managing to believe that deep down he’s good. We like to see him grow up and use those cool skills to do bad things to bad people. We like to see the pretty girl survive and shed a tear for the noble man who saved her. It worked well for The Professional and it should have worked well for Drive.
Unfortunately, we don’t really get much proof that Driver is an exceptional driver. The opening scene is great and shows some of his skill and his cool, but there’s not that much to see it and, for a movie called “Drive”, the rest of the movie is surprisingly light on good car chases. We briefly see him racing on a track, but not enough to know that he’s good. Instead, we just have people saying how good he is. So the audience is denied much of the pleasure of watching the hero at work, and our faith in his purity and goodness (which are predicated partly on his being pure and singleminded in pursuit of his skill) are undermined.
The chemistry between Driver and Irene is fairly unconvincing. Her seemingly complex relationship with her husband is left unexplored, and so her quick attachment to Driver is hard to believe. Their relationship is mostly established with a number of awkward silences that, I think, are intended to meaningful, as well as with some interplay between Driver and Irene’s son that I didn’t buy at all. The situation was partly rescued by the fact that the relationship between Driver and Irene’s husband started to get complicated and interesting rather than being merely formulaic, but that didn’t go very far.
I think the main flaw of this movie is that it intends us to believe that driver is skilled, taciturn, innocent, capable of love, etc, but that it doesn’t really show us enough to make us believe these things. Instead, we are supposed to accept them on faith — either we’re told them, or they come along with all the genre cliches. And without really believing in the character, I wasn’t really able to fully accept the movie. It was decent, but I think it missed being the icon of utter cool that it so obviously wanted to be.