Even before the opening credits roll, Drive takes off with a sensational gush of adrenaline. The movie's protagonist—identified only as "Driver," and played by Ryan Gosling—is working as the getaway wheelman for a couple of bumbling heist specialists. Pulling away from the scene of their botched robbery, he finds himself suddenly pursued by a herd of cops in patrol cars and helicopters, and in a beautifully constructed sequence he outfoxes them with iron nerve and an encyclopedic knowledge of the streets of L.A. As a total pro, he already has a personal exit plan worked out—a very clever one—and it's a treat to watch him bring it off.
The movie is a striking exercise in neo-noir style and compressed emotion goosed along with stabs of furious action, some of it shockingly violent. Gosling's self-sufficient inwardness echoes the nameless antiheroes in any number of earlier films, from the Eastwood spaghetti westerns to Two Lane Blacktop and, more nearly, Walter Hill's 1978 The Driver. His life is devoted entirely to automotive transport. He's a garage mechanic and a movie stunt driver with crime as a sideline. When Irene (Carey Mulligan), the young woman who lives down the hall in his dismal apartment building, asks what he does, he says, "I drive." And that really seems to be all.
His austere existence becomes dangerously complicated when his mentor, Shannon (Bryan Cranston)—the owner of the garage in which he works—comes up with a plan to buy a very expensive competition race car and install the driver behind the wheel for fortune and glory. Lacking the money to make this purchase, Shannon approaches a sleazy operator named Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks in a chilling performance). Bernie agrees to fund Shannon's race-car dream, against the wishes of his vicious associate, Nino (Ron Perlman, equally alarming). In no time at all, things start going appallingly wrong.
Meanwhile, the driver is becoming emotionally entangled with Irene and her little boy, Benicio (Kaden Leos), whose father, a small-time criminal oddly named Standard (Oscar Isaac), is currently in prison. Upon his release, he gets the driver involved—along with an inscrutable woman named Blanche (Christina Hendricks)—in a pawn shop robbery that also goes very, very wrong.
Gosling, with a toothpick pasted to his lip, plays all of this with few words and even fewer facial expressions. He seems at times to be doing almost nothing, but he nevertheless conveys longing and contempt and rage using, for the most part, only his eyes. It's a performance of formidable control.
The Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) won the best-director award with this movie at the last Cannes Film Festival, and the honor seems deserved. He has a gift for velocity and has constructed a number of startlingly original action scenes. There's a horrifically bloody motel shootout, a sudden flash of grisly razor-play, and a ferocious assault in a strip-club dressing room—with topless women arrayed impassively all around—that might earn an admiring nod from David Lynch. The movie's devotion to the noir idiom is subtly satirical—although it might also pass, especially toward the end, as art-film pretentiousness. But the picture is excitingly ambitious, and whenever an untoward lull might seem to impend, Refn knows just when to hit the gas.
Sam Peckinpah's 1971 Straw Dogs is a movie that cries out not to be remade. Even as an international movement for women's rights and revaluation was beginning to build (Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch had been published the year before), Peckinpah determined to make a case for male primacy and female insufficiency. His picture didn't just argue that a man must be prepared to use force in defense of his home and his woman (who can't be counted on in such a situation); it also asserted that only in such violence can he discover his true nature as a man. In the movie's most famous scene, a woman is brutally raped and halfway enjoys it: In the view of Peckinpah, who co-wrote the script, she was a tease who had been asking for it anyway.
Although hailed for its technical skill, the movie was also widely reviled at the time. Critic Pauline Kael, a Peckinpah champion, deplored the film's "sexual fascism." Peckinpah, she said, had "discovered the territorial imperative and wants to spread the Neanderthal word."
It's no surprise that in undertaking to remake Straw Dogs, director Rod Lurie realized that there was no way this story was going to fly today without some key adjustments. Unfortunately, these have further muddied Peckinpah's already murky motivational waters.
The original film centered on a liberal academic—in Peckinpah's estimation, a moral jellyfish—who had come to Cornwall with his English wife, a flighty sex kitten, to settle into her native village in order to write a book. In the new movie, the story has been relocated to a small town in Louisiana. The husband, David (James Marsden), is a liberal Hollywood screenwriter and his wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth), is a successful TV actress. When David hires a local construction crew to repair the barn on Amy's ancestral property, the leader of these obvious louts turns out to be Amy's strapping high-school boyfriend, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård).
Tensions immediately gather. Outside, the louts play loud redneck rock on their boombox, swamping David's tasteful classical music inside. They walk into the house unannounced to root in the fridge for beer. And when they see Amy out jogging in tight shorts, braless under her thin blouse, they make no attempt to conceal their loutish appreciation. Amy complains to David that the men were all but "licking my body." David says maybe she should wear a bra. Amy is indignant: "Are you saying I'm asking for this?"
Here we see Lurie, who wrote the script, attempting to dilute Peckinpah's hidebound misogyny. Amy is a modern woman, entitled to dress whatever way she wants. But then she next appears at an open upstairs window, where she purposefully draws the attention of the hayseeds outside and begins removing her clothes. The primal Peckinpah cannot be so easily subdued.
The director also bathes the story with a familiar Hollywood condescension about small-town Southerners and the guns, religion, and manly sports to which they so pathetically cling. At one point, a burly lout even snipes at David about "that global warming you educated guys keep talkin' about." This tendentious point-scoring is tiresome in the usual Tinseltown way.
David's refusal to confront the brutes who are invading his life is still unconvincing here, especially after an incident involving Amy's unfortunate cat. And while Lurie has adjusted the rape scene to remove the victim's apparent pleasure, it still makes no sense that she wouldn't tell her husband about such an assault—or, being a modern woman, call in the law herself. And an intertwined story thread, involving a mentally retarded man in the town and a 15-year-old girl who keeps trying to seduce him, is as implausible as ever.
The movie is perfectly well-made, with a rousing reprise of Peckinpah's home-invasion effects (the bear trap, the boiling liquid) and at least one new one (best use of a nail gun since The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest). And apart from James Woods, who has been directed to give an embarrassingly over-the-top performance as a frothing barroom troublemaker, the actors are fine, especially Skarsgård—the hunky vampire Eric on True Blood—whose sweet Southern politeness is entirely convincing, and carefully balanced against his character's glimmering, sinister lust. But Straw Dogs is a movie at war with itself; and you wonder why Lurie didn't just devise a similar story of his own, from which he might have eliminated Peckinpah's unconquerable machismo. When the smoke from the fiery final confrontation here clears, there's no question who the winner—although now long-dead—really is.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.