Ethan Coen’s 'Drive-Away Dolls' Needs His Co-Driver

Directed by Ethan Coen

Starring Geraldine Viswanathan, Margaret Qualley, Beanie Feldstein, Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson, Bill Camp, Matt Damon, Connie Jackson, Pedro Pascal

Photo: Wilson Webb / Working Title / Focus Features

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Feb 22, 2024


Few writer-directors — or in this case, writer-director duos — have a voice as distinct as Joel and Ethan Coen, a.k.a. the Coen Brothers. Mixing dark comic violence with idiosyncratic characters and (seemingly) effortless dialogue, the Coens have carved out a singular niche in the film world and have long been considered some of the most accomplished filmmakers of their generation.

In 2019, the Brothers announced, after more than 30 years, that they would be working on solo projects. In 2021, Joel released The Tragedy of Macbeth, and in 2022, Ethan released Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, an archival documentary about the notorious musician. And now, we have Ethan's first solo narrative feature film, the wacky queer crime caper Drive-Away Dolls.

Written with his wife, film editor Tricia Cooke, Drive-Away Dolls tells the serpentine story of a briefcase, a pair of best friends, Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Jamie (Margaret Qualley), and the political "intrigue" that follows them. Marian is uptight and repressed while Jamie is spontaneous and frank, both with her words and her desires. It's a modern-day odd couple!

When Marian decides to drive down to Tallahassee to see her Aunt Ellis (Connie Jackson), the pair rent a car as a drive-away (a free one-way rental wherein they must deliver the car to the drive-away company's client in Tallahassee). Easy peasy. Unfortunately, it just so happens that their car was meant to be used by a criminal organization that has a package in the trunk of the car containing some very sensitive material. The girls leave, and when the goons arrive, they realize the clerk's mistake, which inevitably leads to all sorts of madcap misadventures for both the girls and the goons.

From the outset, Marian and Jamie's relationship — which draws on Cooke's own experiences going to lesbian bars in the '90s and 2000s, as well as Cooke's and Coen's non-traditional relationship (they're still married, but Cooke is queer and has her own partner while Ethan has his) — is treated with a tenderness that is often missing from some of the more ironic, cynical and/or transactional relationships that the Coens have explored in the past (the Gundersons notwithstanding). They bicker and find the smallest faults in each other's actions and behaviours, yet their budding romance is sweet and sincere, and honestly depicted. Watching them never feels voyeuristic because they are never filmed that way; the characters themselves are voyeuristic, which means the filmmaker doesn't always have to be.

Most importantly, Cooke's involvement and influence helps present a depiction of female sexuality that is unabashedly fun, complex and sexy. At one point, Jamie gets the pair invited to a kissing party with a women's soccer team. When the timer goes off, people change partners, always kissing someone new. Eventually, Marian and Jamie are paired, and the moment is both beautiful and gut-wrenching, awash with unexplored feelings and confusion. It takes a silly premise and turns it into a moment that means the world to our protagonists, not an easy task but one which Coen and Cooke deftly and empathetically handle.

Queerness manifests in many different forms; there's no singular "type" of queer representation or expression. Drive-Away Dolls thankfully eschews clichés or stereotypes. Sex doesn't have to be portrayed as a slow-motion perfume commercial; sometimes, it's just fuckin', and Jamie isn't afraid to embrace that side of it.

Coen and Cooke also take the time to explore Marian's sexual awakening and early sexual discoveries. Showing Marian using a trampoline as a child sneaking numerous peeks at a topless sunbathing neighbour, for instance, gives the characters depth and a real history that connects them to the audience in incredibly nuanced ways. It also means that when they are uncomfortable, or terrified or horny, we intensely feel it with them.

Although Drive-Away Dolls is missing Joel from its creative team, Coenisms nevertheless abound: rapid-fire dialogue and editing, heavy use of shot/reverse-shot, animated transitions, and a "mysterious briefcase" at the centre of it all are all present. It's playful, and even though the stakes are high, it never feels overwrought or dramatic.

Ethan is also still, at times, a supremely inventive filmmaker. His bag of cinematic tricks provides some truly inspired moments: an overhead shot floats over top of the car, through the metal of the trunk and into the briefcase, keeping the contents hidden even as it travels below the surface; there are trippy, psychedelic interludes that include a transcendental spinning pizza and a cameo from a famous pop star, which comes unexpectedly out of nowhere and is thus hilarious; and "Maggot Brain" is employed to tremendous effect, as it always should be.

There is also plenty of humour in stasis and silence, something that the Coens have heavily explored in the past. Awkward pauses and wordless revelations stand in sharp contrast to the cartoonish action violence and Jamie's motormouth, and so the zaniness feels earned. The film is inherently slapstick, utilizing many elements from screwball comedies that would've made Howard Hawks proud. The film also gleefully reduces politicians and Fortune 500 CEOs and company owners down to their basest essentials, which is a very apt approach.

Although some of the characters feel like lesser versions of more fleshed-out characters from previous films, this may be intentional from Coen, as this criticism only extends to the male characters: Chief (Colman Domingo), a crime boss who has promised to "deliver the goods"; Arliss (Joey Slotnick) and Flint (C.J. Wilson), a pair of bumbling enforcers who are even more inept than the kidnappers in Fargo; Curlie (Bill Camp), the car-rental clerk; and Matt Damon as a shallow senator with a very, shall we say, members-only problem.

The performances are consistently top-notch, with Viswanathan and Qualley unsurprisingly delivering great turns, and Beanie Feldstein bringing the comedic heat as Jamie's agile, ass-kicking but altogether jilted ex-girlfriend. However, for as uninhibited and unhinged as the film is, it's also surprisingly thin.

Even at 84 minutes, Drive-Away Dolls drags during numerous scenes, especially the dialogue-heavy ones, going on for way too long. There are a number of revelations and twists, some of which are pretty funny, but mostly they feel forced and hollow. The scenes involving the goons are particularly dull and half-baked, and halfway through, it's hard to shake the sense that something is missing — a brother, perhaps.

Similar to the slight duplication of male character types, many elements from earlier Coen Brothers films (namely The Big Lebowski, Fargo and Raising Arizona) feel appropriated and repurposed for Drive-Away Dolls. Essentially, it feels like the work of another filmmaker aping a Coen Brothers movie to mixed results. The fact that an actual Coen Brother is involved hints towards how much they arguably need each other as filmmakers.

Drive-Away Dolls feels like a pair of old, faded jeans that fit too tight, or a photograph found in the back of a drawer of an ex-partner whose face isn't immediately recognizable; you're glad to still have these artifacts, even if they aren't quite what you remember. It's a messy dream that most would rather not dream again, but it'll stick for a long time in memory — chaotic, wild and free.

(Focus Features)

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