In DRIVE ALL NIGHT, writer and director Peter Hsieh tries to blend a fairy tale romance into a neo-noir thriller. Set over the course of one night, this heavily stylized drama oscillates between realism and surrealism to the point where it becomes unclear what exactly is going on. In a sense, this spiraling surreality creates a dream-like quality that is appropriate for an aimless late-night excursion, where the only people awake are taxi drivers and mysterious lonely souls.
Dave (Yutaka Takeuchi) is a taxi driver on a night shift in a big city. His night takes an unexpected turn when he picks up Cara (Lexy Hammonds), a mysterious young woman with a dark secret and a high aptitude for Mortal Kombat arcade games. With no destination in sight, Cara’s cryptic intensity and impulsivity lead Dave on a fun night of frivolous yet escalating excursions- they get drinks and play at an arcade, go to the Kit Kat Klub for a one-vampiress show, pick up a mysterious duffel bag, and then break into a theater for a Jack Rabbit Visions show (aptly named as we accelerate our descent down our rabbit hole). Meanwhile, to add another layer on top of these bizarre events, Cara is being targeted by a hit-man named Lenny (Johnny Gilligan), who was sent by some crime syndicate for unclear reasons. Will Lenny catch Cara or will the night plunge further into surrealism before he even gets a chance? Will Dave ever make heads or tails about his ever-deteriorating reality?
DRIVE ALL NIGHT’s strengths resides in its sounds and visuals. Blue and red scenes are interwoven throughout the film, which seems to represent different characters or states of mind. From what I could tell, we cut to a blue corridor when we are in Dave’s dream state and to red-washed rooms when scenes are associating with Lenny or a sense of danger. All of the women have blue eyes and some gradient of a red garb or lip, with Dave’s main love interest, Morgan (Sarah Dumont) having the lightest shade. I am sure there are a ton of ways one could analyze this but there is no way for me to know what analysis is close to correct as Hsieh intended to make the audience somewhat confused. Could they all be different projections of the same woman Dave is infatuated with? Could red suggest being in a game and blue suggest being in a dream? After all, the movie starts with Cara entering a video game in a red-soaked room but Dave’s imagination only takes him down blue corridors. Maybe Cara is both in a game and in a dream! I don’t know! For now, I am just going with the more vibrant the red and blue is- or at least the stronger the use of chiaroscuro is- the more unreal the character or place.
The most compelling part of DRIVE ALL NIGHT is the ambient ’80s tone. Nothing screams the ’80s to me more than the arcade, especially when it is layered by ’80s synth wave music. It could even be argued that if Hsieh chose a different sound the point of the movie would be further lost in translation because it creates the perfect surreal atmosphere with just the right amount of energy to propel the plot further. He also makes sure to remind the audience of the video game component throughout the film with smash cuts to black screens with small white phrases like “new game” or “press start”. Though all of these elements make the movie come alive when it is struggling in other areas like acting and basic coherency, it mainly just highlighted to me the effort and ambition Hsieh had with this project rather than being fully sold on it.
Speaking of acting, overall, it was not that bad. However, there was still an awkward woodenness to the cast as a whole. The relationships between most of the characters were not very believable, although Dave and Morgan’s relationship probably suffered the least. And what about that romance? While their budding relationship and attraction to each other was somewhat clear, and you could easily make your own conclusions about them in the end, it was overshadowed by Dave’s relationship with Cara in a way that made you forget about the true romance at hand. However, if you buy into the theory that all the women are a projection of Morgan then this is a non-issue. It is hard to critique this if you are assuming that this is all, or at least partially, in Dave’s dream. There are no rules in dreams and they lack coherent meaning.
Ultimately, I am not mad at DRIVE ALL NIGHT. This is the most I can hope for with such an ambitious project. The cinematography is gorgeous and I loved the stylistic approach. You will leave it feeling like you watched some patchy crossover of Twin Peaks and Mandy. And, once you start to understand that you aren’t really supposed to understand it, it helps you enjoy the movie for what it is.
DRIVE ALL NIGHT made its World Premiere in competition at the Cinequest Film Festival, running March 20-30, 2021.