Directed by Brad Burah and Meghan Leon
Screened at Grimmfest 2021
There’s something nice about a nighttime drive: seeing the city streets deserted, long roads without any holdups and the warm glow of lights all around you. Most films will include scenes set at night, but few will really capture that feeling of being up super late. This neat feature from Brad Burah and Meghan Leon, a little horror/sci-fi/comedy mishmash, achieves that and then some. Think of it as a kooky take on Collateral, with an emphasis on fun.
The setting is LA. It begins as another day in the life of frustrated cab driver Russell (Bowen). In a middle-aged malaise, he’s driving all over the city but feels like he’s going nowhere. Little does he know his life and his understanding of the world as he knows it will change when he picks up Charlotte (Dalah): a young woman who struggles with social etiquette and can’t tell her Bing Crosby from her Bill Cosby. At once cute and a psychopathic, she’s lively and hedonistic – a clear foil for the weather-beaten Russell (or ‘Rusty’ as she calls him, because of her advanced age). Only from the get-go, it’s clear she’s got a secret, which goes way beyond her cover story of a bad ex-boyfriend. And it seems to revolve around the contents of a mysterious box.
The main thing Night Drive has going for it is the chemistry between the leads – aided by a snappy, layered script. Bowen and Dalah are excellent together. Sure, the dynamic of an exasperated older man and a free-spirit woman has been done to death – it’s pretty much the template for a modern crisis of masculinity or cringy mumblecore romance movie. But, importantly, it doesn’t feel like they’re playing to archetypes here. This is partially helped by Charlotte being amoral, not caring about the small body count they rack up, puncturing any hint of the manic pixie dream girl motif. We like her from the start but also believe she’ll stop at nothing to get her hands on this MacGuffin. She’s also got a soft side Dalah taps into, without once breaking character, and I liked seeing how their relationship developed as it went on. Even though she does bad things, it’s rewarding to watch Russell open up to her about regrets and, aptly, the road less travelled. His hangups are highly relatable and are weaved with expert precision into the narrative, building up to a quiet, emotional resolution with well-earned pathos.
It’s a warm film really – though you wouldn’t know it from the Christmas setting: an interesting contrast for the film’s darker side. Much of the comedy comes from how casually Charlotte responds to the violence around her (which she mostly causes). Bits like her asking him his favourite Christmas songs when they’ve been disposing of a body are brilliant. As a story, it just about hangs together despite having so many disparate elements. There are a few interesting twists and turns in the journey – all of which the script foreshadows wonderfully. A smooth ride to some unexpected places. Still, while there’s a clear source of tension, there aren’t enough dramatic stakes to this movie: if it all goes wrong, what are the consequences for the characters, along with everyone else? I dug where the story went, but it felt like something wasn’t quite right. And even after a big reveal in the third act, when we finally find out what the box is, you may find yourself wondering, ‘so what?’
This isn’t necessarily a problem – particularly if you like more intimate movies. But it means the momentum, which has built up slowly, fizzles out a little when the film ought to be at its most interesting. No small part of this is the lack of characterised villains. To an extent, that role falls to Charlotte, who we know is keeping things from Russell. Though we also kind of love her as an audience, and would gladly spend more time going through country roads and neon-lit boulevards with her – all of which are beautifully shot. It’s a minor complaint about a clever, funny and dead enjoyable flick. In the right hands, a little budget can go a long way.