Why the biggest cult movie of 2011 won't get any Oscar love.
It's an open secret that the Academy Awards are a frustrating, out of touch, and occasionally rigged popularity contest. This is why critical and fan favorites like Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive will get the big snub. Refn's slow-burn thriller didn't blow out the box office, but it's already cemented itself as something of a modern classic by virtue of heavy internet love, a bestselling soundtrack, and a 92% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But Drive isn't going to do much at the Oscars in February, and here's why.
1. It didn't take in boatloads at the box office.
Drive was a small-budget indie film that's garnered a modest $34.3 million since its release in September, but as past Best Pictures indicate, Academy voters like big sellers. Look at the bigger winners in years past: The King's Speech ($138.8 million), Slumdog Millionaire ($141.2 million), The Departed ($132.3 million), Million Dollar Baby ($100.4 million), and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King ($377 million). The only outlier in that list is The Hurt Locker, which grossed just $15.7 million. Despite the growing disconnect between a film's budget, its quality, and what it makes at the box office, Academy voters still like what the masses go out to see.
2. It has a morally ambiguous hero.
Ryan Gosling's nameless driver is a cold, machine-like, anti-hero largely characterized by steely stares, beautifully shot montages, and wild bursts of hammer-wielding violence. He's less Luke Skywalker and more The Man With No Name, and Academy voters like big, redemptive moments where the protagonist wins back the hearts of the audience. Phil Contrino of Boxoffice.com pointed out that the crowd at his showing lost interest once Gosling slapped media-darling Christina Hendricks, even though her character was plotting his demise. Even though Gosling's driver is a huge internet fan favorite and represents one of his strongest performances, the character itself could tank the movie's chances.
3. It skews too young.
The average Academy voter is in his mid-sixties, which translates to traditional, conservative sensibilities, by and large. With a synth-rock soundtrack, a highly-stylized retro aesthetic of hot cars and skinny jeans, and a leading man cultishly adored by people in their twenties, Drive is a younger generation's movie. Last year, the Generation Y-focused The Social Network (directed by David Fincher, a man who started out doing music videos) lost out to period film The King's Speech. Don't expect anything different this year.
4. It's too bloody.
Part of Drive's appeal is the tension it builds between long stretches of quiet minimalism and sudden bursts of ultraviolence. But artful and stylized though it was, most audiences found it way too bloody. History has shown the Academy voters can take some blood occasionally — just look at the opening scene from Best Picture favorite Saving Private Ryan. Still, it's doubtful Refn's chic bloodletting will get the same pass as the historically significant violence from that film.
5. There aren't enough Hollywood moments.
Though it's deeply indebted to Hollywood genre traditions, Drive lacks many of the standard beats of today's blockbusters. I'm referring to those Steven Spielberg moments: a crying grandfather, a twenty-foot shark explosion, a grandiose score, a big, obvious emotional payoff. These sentimental elements aren't totally absent from Drive, but Refn is more subversive about introducing them, doing so subtly and in layers. But what endeared him to critics will probably hurt him come February — Academy voters are suckers for tearjerkers.
What Drive will get:
I predict that Albert Brooks will have a serious claim to Best Supporting actor for his chilling but weirdly amusing role as Bernie Rose, though that'll be more out of respect for his long-overlooked talent than this particular performance. Drive might steal some design and music awards, possibly cinematography, if it's lucky. Do you understand?