Reviews of Drive and Contagion by Brendan M. Leonard

Reviews of Drive and Contagion


Taken from

Oct 06, 2011 in Film, Guest Posts

Drive, the stylish, stylized thriller from Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn, is not for everyone. It’s moody and challenging, sparse in dialogue and dreamlike…and aggressive in its violence in a way that few films are. The retro vibe of the trailers’ Eurosynth score and the bold pink font of the posters are the first of many games star Ryan Gosling and Refn play with audience expectations. It looks like a fun Saturday night; something to take the boyfriend or girlfriend out to. Ryan Gosling does the action hero thing, gets the girl, beats the bad guys, there are some rockin’ chases, we all go for ice cream after, right? Wrong. This picture is in your face, leaving a room of hardened critics whispering “Jesus Christ” as climactic moments of sudden intensity play out on the screen.

Do these names mean anything to you? The Limey. Point Blank. Le Samouri. Collateral. The American. If those films are among your favorites, then Drive may be the best movie of the year. It may be the best movie of the year, period, but hey, year’s not over yet. Regardless of how things shake out come 2012, those films listed above have a new companion in film festivals about art house noir and silent protagonists for years to come. Drive is just as good as those movies, and in some cases, better.

In this film based on James Sallis’s novel, notebook owner Ryan Gosling plays “Driver,” a mechanic and part-time stunt driver who moonlights as a getway driver for Los Angeles criminals. He lives in a rundown apartment. He doesn’t have any friends except for Shannon (everyone’s new favorite character actor Bryan Cranston), who owns the shop where he works. Shannon has a dreams of taking Driver’s talents behind the wheel to the stock car circuit, financed by Bernie and < >, two gangsters played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.

Then, the girl. Isn’t there always a girl? Here, she’s Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, she of the flawless American accent, looking like Michelle Williams in her pixie cut days. She’s excellent here, as are all the supporting players in this film. Irene has a kid, so, you know, bonus for Driver. They go for drives. They watch TV. They play around. One big happy postmodern family…until Standard (Oscar Issac), Irene’s husband gets out of prison with a big debt around his neck. One last job goes bad, and Driver finds himself forced to protect the woman he loves (even though he can’t tell her so). Oh, and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) shows up for one of the best entrances and best exits in recent memory.

The film is a pretty straightforward tale, and it lacks much of the oppressive sadness of Sallis’ novel. Elements of Driver’s background in the book are eliminated outright, but both the film and the book are lean and mean. No fat here, and Refn, working from a script by Hossein Amini,, makes every scene count, capturing the isolation and loneliness of the novel.

The cinematography is gorgeous, taking place outside of the great L.A. haunts audiences have seen a million times before. This is the L.A. of Michael Mann and Michael Connelly (and occasionally, John Carpenter) of pawnshops and car dealerships, of strip mall pizzerias and Chinese restaurants that seem to go on forever. Few of these locations have names and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel renders them all in beautiful, timeless tones. In interviews for Drive, Refn has spoken about the film in broad, fairy tale tones, and the cinematography (with an assist from Cliff Martinez’s Tangerine Dream-flavored score) helps slam the archetypal nature of the film home.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a fairy tale without a few dragons and dark wizards to slay. Here, they’re the aforementioned Brooks and Perlman. This is standard stuff for Perlman, who remains a pleasure to watch, but Refn handed Albert Brooks a Tarantino-style role here. You wouldn’t think that the sweaty news anchor from Broadcast News could be so menacing, (unless you’ve seen his callous millionaire in Out of Sight.) Even that film from Steven Soderbergh, though, had him playing up his nebbish-like qualities, which Drive tempers and lines with a sinister edge from the first frame. In a just world, he would be on the short list for Best Supporting Actor.  To discuss Brooks in full detail would spoil the sheer delight of his role, however, and he provides Drive with some of its more shocking moments.

And yes, Virginia, Drive is a shocking film. Refn treats violence with an appropriate gravity, and doesn’t shy away from the physical consequences of, say, a gunfight or a physical brawl. It’s not a stand-up and cheer kind of violence, although Refn’s audacity for showing such things in a mainstream picture must be applauded. Part of the surprise is that it’s Ryan Gosling who’s being so ferocious, so psychotic, on the screen in certain parts. He’s not the only one dishing out the bloody vengeance in Drive, It lends the entire film an air of “no one is safe,” which is something I haven’t felt at the movies in a long, long time.

Drive is not for everyone, and word of mouth has been horrible on this small, brutal gem of a film. But for crime fiction aficionados, Drive is a throwback, an antidote, and a great time at the movies. You may walk out shaking your head, wondering what you just saw, but there’ll be a smile on your face, a spring in your step and College’s “A Real Hero” in your head. God forbid you drove to the theater, because you’re going to drive fast on the way home.

A film doing much better than Drive at the box office is Contagion, which is also a thriller boasting a supporting performance from Bryan Cranston and an electronic score by Cliff Martinez. The director is Steven Soderbergh, working in “studio” mode reminiscent of his Oscar winning film Traffic. Here, the “big issue” is not drugs but a global pandemic. It starts with Gwyneth Paltrow in Hong Kong and soon spreads to claim the lives of millions worldwide with chilling clinical accuracy. If it were to happen, the press surrounding Contagion tells us, this is…exactly…how…it…would happen! (Insert your own ‘dun-dun-dun’ noise here.)

Contagion’s star-studded cast dance the apocalypse a go-go through four main storylines: Matt Damon, as Paltrow’s husband, puts on weight to embody the human face of the disaster. He’s both grieving for his wife and protective of his teenage daughter as food riots, home invasions, and teenage angst plays out around them. It should come as no surprise to anyone that he delivers a very good, subtle performance, calling to mind Gary Sinse in the TV adaptation of The Stand.

At the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Lawrence Fishburne leads a team of researchers to track the epidemic while developing a cure for the disease. The epidemiologists are led by the noble, harried Kate Winslet, who, like Matt Damon, is working in “average joe” mode, as evidenced by her Sarah Linden sweaters. It’s not Winslet’s best performance, but, like Damon, she does some non-verbal acting here that’s quite wonderful. Fishburne’s team also includes British actress Jennifer Ehle as the doctor developing a cure, the aforementioned Bryan Cranston as a rear admiral concerned about weaponization, Eliott Gould as a rogue doctor who lays out the three deadliest pandemics in world history (complete with flashbacks…no, he doesn’t.) and John Hawkes as a janitor. All of these guys are good, although the relationship between Hawkes and Fishburne stumbles throughout the picture. It seems like Soderbergh had an early draft where a conversation of theirs told us what the message of the movie was, and excised it without getting rid of its foreshadowing.

The other two storylines focus on Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard as a WHO doctor tracking the disease’s origins in Hong Kong and China, and Jude Law as a self-promoting blogger in San Francisco. Their storylines make up the weaker half of Contagion. Cotillard’s starts strong before taking a far right turn into weird and never really corrects. While the film allows Jude Law a rare chance to play in the “weirdo character actor” sandbox he so enjoys, more often than not, his character winds up being a shrill mouthpiece for talking points about why rumors, hype, and fear-mongering are, you know, bad.  He provides the most on-the-nose bits of Contagion, and like Cotillard, his storyline just sort of ends without any real “oomph” or comeuppance.

Contagion, for all its science, whiteboards, and sympathetic government officials, is a disaster movie with a coat of realism slapped on it. You line the actors up and play a game of “who’s going to die first,” hoping that things will be all right in the end. This movie could have been bleak and depressing, but Soderbergh delivers a piece of fall entertainment on the level of his Ocean’s films. It’s odd to call a movie where millions of people die from bat-and-swine flue “fun” or “feel-good,” but Contagion is that movie. It doesn’t insult your intelligence; it doesn’t talk down to you. Unlike Drive, it’s a movie you can take your significant other to, have a good time at the movies, and enjoy some ice cream afterwards. Just don’t share the spoon.

Did you see either of these films? What did you think?

Brendan M. Leonard attributes his love of crime literature to reading L.A. Confidential and In Cold Blood when he was too young to be reading such things. He has contributed to The Rap Sheet and January Magazine, and lives in New York City.

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