Moving Pictures
Feb 28, 2024, 06:29AM

Muff Drivers

Drive-Away Dolls is an exhilarating directorial debut by Ethan Coen.

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Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is one of the only movies I’ve ever almost fallen asleep in; Ash is Purest White was sleep deprivation, but again and again, I can’t engage with filmed Shakespeare. Reading him is transcendent; I feel like I read Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. But open captions hadn’t reared their ugly head yet in early 2022; if Coen or someone else makes a new Hamlet or the first Cymbeline, I’ll go to the screening with subtitles. BORING—no more about Macbeth or Joel, the “other” Coen brother—Ethan Coen is the one. For decades, they made nihilistic American masterpieces like Fargo, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, and Inside Llewyn Davis together; in their 60s, they’ve made a clean split, deliberately or not, debuting as solo directors with two very different films that contain almost all of their terminal preoccupations.

Drive-Away Dolls is Ethan Coen’s first, co-written with his wife Tricia Cooke. She’s a lesbian and according to her, they have an arrangement. Although the pandemic jumpstarted rewrites and production, the couple wrote the script throughout the 1990s as a private, free creative exercise. It was called Drive-Away Dykes, and that’s the second title given on screen at the end when some flimsy flyers reading O, L, L, and S fly away and reveal the titles’ curiously 2005 mall emo graffiti style. The rest of the movie is pitch perfect for 1999, the year that this movie is set and the year that the Coens shot O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the first film ever digitally color corrected. That ushered in an era of sick, harsh yellows even when American movies didn’t find themselves in Mexico or Afghanistan.

No Country for Old Men is a great movie that looks terrible; Drive-Away Dolls is a great movie that looks even better. Is it “low stakes” compared to some of their other films, and many others in theaters now? I guess, but why is this such a sticking point for some people, either pro or con? I was shocked after I saw it that Drive-Away Dolls is getting polarized reviews from audiences and critics—this was a slam dunk, but the Coens have always been too nasty for some people (Jonathan Rosenbaum calls them “anti-humanist”). I don’t get that, and I was shocked when the audience I saw it with didn’t take well to some mobsters getting shot out of nowhere. Even if you don’t know the Coens, where do you think frustrated men with guns and no patience are going? Tallahassee?

Exactly. Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan are the gay friends that rent a car and drive from Philadelphia to Tallahassee in 1999. That car was supposed to go to a pair of mobsters echoing Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in Fargo. Chase ensues. The girls mostly have fun at various gay bars down South while hapless gangsters fail to find them or their car. Qualley tries to loosen up Viswanathan and succeeds in the end. They make out with a soccer team and eventually have sex, outliving their pursuers and living happily ever after—and rich!

This movie is 84 minutes. WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU PEOPLE!

Of course it isn’t the seismic and chilling Oppenheimer, or the funeral march of Killers of the Flower Moon, or even The Holdovers, very funny and very sad. Big, big films; other “low stakes” films like Anyone But You have been remarkably successful given how uninspired and stiff they are. But on the whole, a new Coen Brother movie is a sign of health; nothing’s really changed. I loved Suburbicon in 2017, a movie people really hated. Why? It was fucked up, but it was a comedy. Come on. The Zone of Interest should’ve been a comedy.

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith


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