If you’re a child of the ‘80s, there’s one car that pops into your mind the moment you think about the era; a vehicle made famous by Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future series and infamous throughout automotive history. The DMC 12 or, as more commonly known, the DeLorean, is the epitome of the era in which it’s built: futuristic, extravagant, and glamorous, yet also too-far reaching and absolutely busted. With its silver-coated look, unique body shape, and winged-doors, the DeLorean captured the imagination of everyone who saw it, but due to a myriad of issues behind the scenes, it never quite lived up to its potential. For many, their knowledge of the DMC 12 begins and ends with the car, but director Nick Hamm (Killing Bono) wants to change that with Driven, a film inspired by true events which offers insight, not into the car, but the rather into the exciting circumstances which lead to the downfall of its creator, illustrious automotive designer John DeLorean. Presented as a tragicomedy, Hamm’s Driven is a morality play mixed with a confidence story in which pride and greed lead to the downfall of everything, requiring a resilience and nerve to stay ahead of the game.
Jim Hoffman (Jason Sudeikis) is your average smart-talking sleezeball who manages to charm himself out of virtually every situation he’s in. When his luck runs out, Jim is forced to become an informant for FBI Special Agent Benedict Tisa (Corey Stoll) as he tries to build a case against Jim’s former boss Morgan (Michael Cudlitz), unbeknownst to Jim’s wife Ellen (Judy Greer). As stressful as Jim’s life is, the one thing that seems to elevate his days is a strange friendship he develops with neighbor John DeLorean (Lee Pace). However, as John’s plans to develop his dream car, the DMC 12, come crashing down and the fate of his company becomes uncertain, a questionable choice is made and suddenly both John’s and Jim’s destinies collided. The resolution of this venture may be known by the history books, but the depth of their friendship is not.
There are some stories which seem so outrageous, they’re unbelievable. Many of them are turned into films because real-life occasionally contains the very cinematic elements which audiences crave. Just looking at the basic outline of events which transpired — ‘80s excess, massive stacks of cocaine, an FBI informant, and a famous car manufacturer — it’ll just take period outfits and directorial flare to have the story drip with sex and excitement. Impressively, Hamm doesn’t go that route. Sure, Driven is the period film you expect and it follows the track laid out by history, but that’s not the story he tells. Instead, based off the script by screenwriter Colin Bateman (Wild About Henry) and co-scriptwriter Alejandro Carpio, Hamm’s tale is far more personal and grounded, using the natural energy of the story to infuse Driven with a contagious excited energy. Part of this is because the story is, at its core, a confidence film in which every person involved possesses an agenda. Hamm makes this clear in the opening moments of the film in which a rockabilly riff plays over Jim walking down a hallway as Tisa speaks to him before it cuts to Jim and Tisa’s first meeting. The music sets the tone (this is going to be a rock n’ roll romp), the setting sets the feeling, (proper, organized, purposeful), and the editing sets the energy (this is going to jump through time). Each of these components reappear throughout Driven to incredible effect, as it keeps the audience just off-base enough so that even the expected feels surprising. Much of this is because audiences expect a story like this to focus on DeLorean, except Hamm makes Jim the central character. This not only serves as the way into the story, but keeps the intrigue on Jim and DeLorean’s decisions more ambiguous. This results in a boiling point of anticipation and uncertainty in the final act, the tension crackling in the air as the audience rests on the edge of their seats, unsure if history is going to repeat itself.
The script, editing, and direction are only part of the fun of Driven. The rest lands heavily on the shoulders of the cast which manages it with aplomb. At one point in the film, Jim points out that he knows he’s full of shit and, because of that, people find him charming. This perfectly encapsulates Sudeikis in the role. The audience knows that Jim’s always looking for a way out of the latest situation he’s gotten himself into, yet we can’t help but root for him. More than his well-worn, fast-talking everyman shtick, Sudeikis’s physical performance is what makes it so impactful. This, however, is not a surprise as he’s proven time and again (see: Kodachrome and Colossal) the kind of incredible range he’s capable of. Even though Driven portrays both Jim and John as kindred spirits, willing to do what it takes to achieve success, their presentation is as opposites. Where Jim is fast-thinking, John is calculating. Where Jim is constantly moving, John is precise. This results in a largely insular portrayal from Pace, where eye squints, shifts in body language, and even a swallow can convey focus, contemplation, or rage. This along with the fact that so much information about John comes from what Jim observes himself, John is constantly kept as a man of mystery, even as layers of decent and deception are peeled away, revealing a man who simply wants to do right by others and build a car that will live beyond him. As supporting cast, Stoll and Greer are fantastic. Possibly too frequently Stoll’s Tisa comes across as the atypical Fed, stern and unrelenting, making it easier to root for Jim and John throughout the story. The real MVP is Greer. She steals every scene she’s in and each scene is made better for having her in it. Part of it is Greer’s natural ease with finding the comedy in the mundane, whether through line or physical delivery, but it’s also the way she convinces us that Ellen is possibly the only honest person in the entire film. She knows who she is, what she wants, and what she’s willing to put up with, which is far more than any of the others. Greer embodies Ellen’s confident fierceness wonderfully.
Like any film based on true events, you want to take what you see with a grain of salt. Life is never as clean-cut as the movies and every story is presented from a specific perspective, not matter how hard a creator tries to avoid one. Even the end credits of Driven remind you of this in a note which reads, “[s]ome dialogue was created consistent with those events. Some events were combined for dramatic purposes.” Certainly, it’s welcoming to have a film address this as audiences less familiar with the true story, like this writer, are more likely to take what they see as gospel. That said, the high energy Hamm infuses into Driven never lets up, even in the moments when you think matters can’t get worse, leaving audiences either in a state of laughter or anxiety that’s only alleviated by transitions away from the past and back to the present. While not a revelatory means of storytelling, it’s undoubtedly effective in keeping audiences locked in and guessing. Driven is a fun, charmingly sweet, slightly unbelievable, and heartbreaking adventure of broken friendships and shattered dreams powered by the strong performances of a top-notch cast.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital August 16th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.