Indulge me, for just this one paragraph. There is a magic time, and it starts some time after midnight and ends some time before dawn. It is the time when cities tend to be at their strangest, and conversations with friends reach their most intimate. For me it is when I do my best writing, and when my mind comes up with its best ideas. It is also the best time for viewing a certain kind of movie. Score the right combination of tone, content, and intimacy – and watch it alone in a dark room at a late hour – and some films absolutely sing.
Take Drive All Night (2021), Peter Hsieh’s wonderfully confident and stylish feature directing debut. It follows Dave (Yutaka Takeuchi), a swing shift taxi driver who receives a call for a cab in the middle of the night. His passenger Cara (Lexy Hammonds) asks him to drive her around town for a while. She requests that he keep her company, from bar to nightclub to goodness-knows-where. As the night goes on, it becomes clear there is more to Cara than meets the eye – for a hired killer named Lenny (Johnny Gilligan) is also out driving, and carefully tracking Cara down.
Tone seems to be everything in Drive All Night. Head into the film expecting a hard narrative structure and you may come away disappointed, while wishing for answers and explanations will only lead to frustration. Treating it as a conventional drama or thriller will mean missing its core appeal, which is that it is a brilliant combination of production design, dialogue, performance, and musical score. It is a small, intimate film, and – as it happens – perfectly suited for the ‘magic time’. Films like this work best when one simply soaks them in.
It seems easy to spot Hsieh’s influences here – the film feels for the most part a cross between Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch – but there is also a clear and distinctive authorial voice. It is not surprising to read that Hsieh is a playwright, as there is a slightly detached and theatrical quality to the dialogue. He has a vivid sense of character, and manages to make Dave and Cara two protagonists with whose company it is actively enjoyable to share. They are enhanced by great performances. Yutaka Takeuchi plays Dave with a delicate and even hand, shifting from melancholic to warm and back. Hammonds manages to make Cara smart, charismatic, and seductive, but also innately untrustworthy. Both bring enormous presence to their roles – if there is any justice in the American film industry we will see more of them in future. Johnny Gilligan is also in fine form as Lenny, delivering a quiet menace that manages to become quite unsettling.
Hsieh makes strong use of colour – notably the vivid reds and blues of the film’s dreamlike excursions, but also in the over-saturated way San Jose looks at night. Everything has a glossy look that belies the film’s limited production budget. One stylistic quirk that stands out is the film’s mild obsession with 1980s videogames – Cara is a wellspring of arcade classics trivia, while videogame lore feels infused into Robert Daniel Thomas’ synth score, and the occasional on-screen captions that crop up between scenes.
Drive All Night is a vivid, attention-grabbing debut, rich in texture and neon-lit cool. Watch it as late into the night and you can, and let it wash over you.
Drive All Night recently premiered at Cinequest 2021. Keep an eye out for it, or if you’re curating a film festival consider trying to screen it.