DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS feature movie review | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS feature movie review 

Ethan Coen's solo project has a unique vibe, for better or for worse.

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Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in Drive-Away Dolls - FOCUS FEATURES
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  • Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan in Drive-Away Dolls

The artistic separation of Joel and Ethan Coen has been hard on the kids—and by "the kids," I mean cinephiles who have adored their films for nearly 40 years. Technically, I suppose, it's less of a separation than the cinematic equivalent of when a band takes a hiatus for the members to work on solo albums; there's already buzzing over their next joint project. Nevertheless, in the five-plus years since The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we've been left to wait for the brothers' stand-alone efforts, hoping that what they offer individually might be as distinctive and creatively consistent as what they've offered together.

And if nothing else, it's been a learning experience regarding what each partner might have brought to their collaborations over the years. While Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth emphasized the kind of grim fatalism and highly-stylized visuals of some of the Coens' greatest work, Ethan Coen's Drive-Away Dolls highlights a mix of surprising violence, mordant humor and rat-a-tat dialogue ... that has also characterized some of the Coens' greatest work.

Like many of those classics, Drive-Away Dolls revolves around a criminal scenario gone sideways—in this case, involving the mysterious contents of a silver case circa 1999. That case is stowed in a car planned for a drive from Philadelphia to Tallahassee—just as lesbian pals Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) show up and are mistaken for the planned drivers. So as they begin their headed-south meanderings, they're unaware that two hired goons (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson) are in pursuit to make sure the case gets to where it's going.

The result is plenty of wild shenanigans, plus a level of sexual explicitness that hasn't typically found its way into Coen joints. Qualley does a fine job of serving what is essentially the George Clooney role of the fast-talking wheeler-dealer of a protagonist, with Jamie's unapologetic libido serving as a counterpoint in the odd-couple pairing with Viswanathan's more reserved Marian. A great supporting cast—Colman Domingo, Bill Camp, Beanie Feldstein, Pedro Pascal, Matt Damon—fills every part with something extra, and the screenplay by Ethan Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke snaps with a lot of the stuff that evokes vintage Coens madness, from the awkwardness of trying to dislodge a corkscrew used as a murder weapon to the tense banter between the two thugs boiling over at an unexpected moment.

So yeah, Drive-Away Dolls feels a lot like a Coen brothers movie—except when it doesn't. Ethan seems generally less interested in making the movie as interesting to look at as it is to listen to, notwithstanding a series of interstitial moments filled with 1960s psychedelia that do ultimately pay off in a narrative sense. The plotting also generally feels less tightly constructed than we've come to expect from Coen capers, including flashbacks to Marian's awakening to her sexual orientation that feel underdeveloped, and an inconsistent approach to whether the 1999 setting serves any function beyond the now-familiar "explaining why the characters don't have cell phones, which would mess things up from a plot standpoint." There's a loosey-goosey approach to the storytelling—funky shifts between scenes, character choices that feel more designed for vibes than for making sense—that feels fitting for something that takes its inspiration squarely in Roger Corman-esque B-movie exploitation cinema. It's just different from the clockwork precision typically associated with the Coens.

And just to be clear, "different" doesn't necessarily mean "bad." Drive-Away Dolls serves up plenty of fun in its tight 84 minutes, providing a great showcase for Qualley and Viswanathan, and a loopy combination of genre pleasures and Henry James references. This might be a playground Ethan is keen on hanging out in, based on reports that he wants to continue with a "lesbian road-movie trilogy," and it's fair to say he's good at it. I, for one, will find it hard not to keep anticipating the greatness that can happen when Joel and Ethan are at the top of their collective game. Solo albums are all well and good, but it'll be great when the band gets back together.

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About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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