Cinequest: Drive All Night (2021) - Reviewed

There's nothing more frustrating than a filmmaker who so clearly has the goods but can't seem to break free from their inspirations enough to make a coherent film. Peter Hsieh's debut feature Drive All Night is the most cogent example of this. A gorgeous looking neo-noir dripping with neon and a bumping synthy score but adds up to absolutely nothing. 

Mild-mannered cab driver Dave (Yutaka Takeuchi) picks up a mysterious woman, Cara (Lexy Hammonds) one night with the sole instruction to "drive all night." What follows is a surrealist sojourn into the life, love and what it all means as the two make increasingly bizarre stops, are stalked by a menacing hitman and maybe fall in love along the way. 

There's a pretty great, if overly familiar thriller somewhere in here. Cara seems to exist solely to help Dave understand himself and what's important to him. Less interesting are their bizarre meetings with a lounge singers named Midnight Judy but more so their stops at a bar inhabited by night owls, tended to by Morgan (Sarah Dumont). It's here that we get our clearest understanding of who these people and their desires are. A tense conversation between Cara and Morgan unravels a hidden romance between the latter and Dave, one made complicated by Cara's arrival. What to make of that or Cara in general is left up to you and there's a bit of thrill trying to understand any of it. 

The frustration lies in Hsieh being so intent on keeping up appearances that nothing falls into place. There's no work done on his end to make you care about Dave and Cara or Dave and Morgan and the result is a group of actors struggling to find any sort of chemistry with one another. Why they're being hunted is also unclear, what Cara means to the people who want her dead even less so it ends up being a muddled mess. There's nothing wrong with being ambiguous and creating art that lets its audience interpret the meaning but Hsieh's insistence on aesthetic is so overbearing that it comes across less as mysterious pontification and more as him wanting to play around with a camera and lighting and let the rest fall into place as haphazardly as possible. Hsieh is so clearly gifted behind the camera. His framing is exquisite but the smoke and mirrors become tiring in lieu of literally anything else.

Drive All Night is an inert experience that plays like the logical nadir of 80's fetishization. Everything from the lighting to the synths to a small plot point that revolves around arcade games (also coming to absolutely nothing) is indebted to an era that we as a culture have been bleeding for nostalgia for decades. It's here where it finally, excruciatingly feels like enough. There's nothing wrong with prioritizing aesthetic over narrative. Nicolas Winding Refn has made a whole career out of it to exciting results. The problem comes from a filmmaker seeing those influences and not understanding why they work. Drive All Night ends up being monotonously shallow and a film trapped in the act of playing dress up. In its desperation to be a moody, sexy thriller, equal parts Carpenter, Lynch and the aforementioned NWR, it comes screeching to a halt. It's a depressingly hollow film all zhuzhed up to hide its inadequacies. At least it looks pretty.

-Brandon Streussnig