Note: This post contains spoilers of a very splattery sort. Consider yourself forewarned.
According to Box Office Mojo, the hardboiled thriller Drive took in $35 million in the United States. Not a bad number for a film with a $15 million budget. But when you consider the movie featured powerhouse talent such as Ryan Gosling (The Notebook), Carey Mulligan (An Education), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Ron Perlman (Hellboy), that number looks pretty puny. Such underperformance made crime writer Patti Abbott wonder just what it was that turned audiences off to Drive. "Did word of mouth hurt it?"” she asked on her blog. "It did a third of its business opening weekend." Myself, I didn't see the movie until last week because I'd heard it was a little violent and my wife doesn't enjoy that sort of thing. So I let it creep up the Netflix queue and watched it over a few days' worth of treadmill time.
And I now know exactly why more people didn't snap up tickets in the theater.
It's not because of the story, which contains plenty of drama, action and romance. A getaway driver who doubles as a Hollywood stuntman falls for his next door neighbor but gets targeted by organized crime when her ex-con husband is released from jail. Neither is it because of the style. Newton Sigel's cinematography fairly pops off the screen, beautifully detailed and cunningly shot. No, I'm certain people shied away from Drive because of the aforementioned violence.
Having once reviewed movies for a living, I'm not terribly sensitive to simulated barbarity. I watched Cabin Fever and A History of Violence without wincing. But Drive shifts from sedately paced drama into outright butchery with such speed that I imagine it left many theatregoers with whiplash. A point-blank shotgun blast literally blows Christina Hendricks' brains out of her head. Blood spurts from Bryan's Cranston's slit radial artery after a run-in with a razor-wielding baddie. Gosling dishes out more pain than he takes, stabbing an assassin through the chest with a curtain rod, stamping another's head until his cranium collapses and pounding a thug's hands with a claw hammer. (Later that particular bad guy gets a piece of flatware shoved in his eye and his throat gouged with a butcher knife.)
Now, let's not wring our hands too much over director Nicolas Winding Refn's squishy setpieces. Artistic freedom's a fine thing, and Refn has every right to make his movies as grisly as he'd like them to be. In fact, that's exactly what he's done, from the gritty Pusher trilogy to the grimy Valhalla Rising. But let's not forget the other half of the equation: Audiences are equally free to not watch. No matter how fine Drive's story, no matter how striking its shots or compelling its leads, many will find it hard to recommend given its explicit content. I know I sure do.
(Picture: CC 2005 by freefotouk)