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Drive-Away Dolls is Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke’s Unapologetically Queer Throwback to Exploitation Romances

It’s hardy to deny that the Coen brothers are some of the most masterful filmmakers of our generation. From Blood Simple to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, this unique duo manages to unveil the absurdity and profoundness of their material through genre elements of crime and black comedy, stylistic trademarks and resonant commentaries on American society, but that changed with their separation. While they pursued individual careers, Joel Coen went on a more dramatic route to direct The Tragedy of Macbeth, a hauntingly bleak interpretation of William Shakespeare’s unforgettable play.


As for Ethan Coen, he brings us Drive-Away Dolls, a piece of genre cinema that blends crime, romance and black comedy elements through an explicitly lesbian perspective. Its quirky nature and genre hybridity indicate that perhaps the darkest humour and wit comes from Ethan after all, but he’s not alone here. His long-time partner and film editor, Tricia Cooke, also helms the credits of co-producer and co-screenwriter to make Drive-Away Dolls’s inherent queerness feel authentic, and it works as a pulpy, playful and even psychedelic throwback to the early exploitation romantic crime films that inspire it.


Following two lesbian friends, Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), in Philadelphia, 1999, both of them are in need of a break. Jamie’s infidelity has resulted in the breakdown of her relationship with her girlfriend and cop, Sukie (Beanie Feldstein), whilst Marian’s unhappiness and boredom has led her wanting to visit her aunt in Tallahassee. These two characters couldn’t have been more different from each other: Jamie is an uninhibited, promiscuous free spirit exerting her sexual confidence and sporting an exaggerated Texan accent, Marian is an introverted, uptight office worker who has not been laid for a while. Nevertheless, they both to a road trip to Tallahassee and hire a car from a driveaway service. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding leads these two to pick up a vehicle that is coincidentally heading to their destination. In that vehicle is a suitcase carrying illegal goods, putting these two leads in the crosshairs of a group of inept criminals (Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson) that wants their stuff back.


Drive-Away Dolls’s premise makes it indistinguishable from a typical Coen film, and fortunately, it happens to be outrageously hilarious from start to finish. The scenarios embrace the crude and sexual vulgarity of its humour without feeling male gaze-y, and its twists and turns border on such a level of absurdity that it must be seen to be believed (avoid the trailers at all costs!). Ethan Coen always maintains self-awareness, preventing his material from wading into unfittingly serious territory, and he occasionally delivers the pulpy thrills and laughter asked from him.


But compared to previous Coen films, Drive-Away Dolls feels slight. Something like this isn’t immediately worrying, but fans expecting plenty of memorable quips and strong storytelling may want to adjust their expectations. Coen and Cooke’s screenplay isn’t aspiring for complexity, instead simply aiming for pure B-movie entertainment, and for most of the runtime, it works. However, there’s an underlying sense that its narrative could’ve required further development. Even though Drive-Away Dolls provides uproariously funny moments (and a lot more dildo action than expected), its narrative progression doesn’t have enough energy to fully keep up with its campy nature.


While Ethan Coen provides brilliant characterisations and depths in his works, his subplots seem underdeveloped. Whenever Drive-Away Dolls cuts back to its criminals, it may be fascinating to see these incompetent characters going on a wild goose chase to retrieve the suitcase but their presence raises the stakes too little. Neither of them is simply interesting to watch, and when the always reliable Colman Domingo tries bringing some life to his material, his limited screentime isn’t enough for that to succeed, and the resolution, while typically Coen-esque, makes this narrative element rather anticlimactic.


Another underdeveloped subplot relates to Matt Damon’s character, Channel, a right-wing senator promoting the traditional values of family and Christianity. Classic. It just manages to tie into Drive-Away Dolls’s key narrative, and how it does so enhances its genuine absurdity, leading to one of its best-delivered jokes yet. But much like the other subplot, it feels shoehorned into the narrative at the last minute, just to raise a sense of conflict, and even though it delivers funny results, its outcome also feels weak in retrospect.


Narratively speaking, this isn’t a particularly strong effort from Ethan Coen. However, when Drive-Away Dolls devotes plenty of time towards Jamie and Marian, it’s where Tricia Cooke’s witty dialogue, quips and characterisations shine. How these two characters became friends isn’t revealed, nor is that relevant, but them acting as exact opposites adds integrity to the comic situations they find themselves in. Despite Jamie’s supportive, well-intentioned nature to help Marian become more comfortable with her sexuality and enjoying life, she’s not always a good listener and her decisions often land them in trouble. Marian is quieter and prefers to read her copy of Henry James’s The European, but her awkwardness makes it clear she doesn’t know how to manoeuvre social situations, and their two distinctly established contrasts is what makes their personalities appealing and easy to like.


Its attempt to transition Jamie and Marian’s friendship into a romantic relationship is a risky decision that could’ve gone sideways. Fortunately, the strong chemistry between Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan lends credibility to Drive-Away Dolls’s romantic comedy elements and adds a surprising sweetness to its sincere B-movie intentions. Viswanathan’s quieter performance embodies her role brilliantly but not without having to sacrifice her comic timing in the process. Meanwhile, Qualley’s performance and effortless ability to deliver crude quips is occasionally over-the-top, making her perfectly tuned to Drive-Away Dolls’s quirky nature, but the emotional sincerity remains whenever it’s needed for her characterisation. These two work beautifully together to make their material not only entertaining but to establish Drive-Away Dolls’s heart.


It's also held together by Ari Wegner’s visual style, which utilises an appropriate amount of well-framed Dutch angles, zoom-ins and retro lighting to give Drive-Away Dolls the feel of an exploitation film. Tricia Cooke’s editing manages to keep things tight, despite relying a bit too much on over-the-top transitions between scenes (clock wipes, rotations, etc.). Even 60s-inspired psychedelic montages interrupt the narrative but not to an obnoxious extent. Instead, it adds to Drive-Away Dolls’s B-movie appeal, which is brought to life by Ethan Coen’s confident filmmaking to prove he hasn’t lost his style yet.


Chances are you won’t leave the theatre thinking highly of Drive-Away Dolls as another Coen classic. It lacks the depths and refined storytelling to make its narrative captivating, but it’s hard to resist the fascinating, likeable lead characters and the playful genre elements overall. Ethan Coen brings the campiness of his material to life, but Tricia Cooke’s sharp co-writing gives Drive-Away Dolls the much-needed queer feminist edge to make for delightfully entertaining viewing. It may not be great, but that doesn’t discount it being a fun time at the movies.



Rating: ★★★½


Drive-Away Dolls is currently playing in a select number of Australian cinemas.


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