Review: Drive-Away Dolls

Drive away dolls

When a Coen brother steps into the director’s chair, I’m tempted to proclaim, “From the mind brought us Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and A Serious Man.” However, the challenge arises when only one of them helms the project. In Ethan Coen’s debut solo film, Drive-Away Dolls, the narrative unravels with an explosive energy in the form of Jamie, portrayed with intensity by Margaret Qualley, as she navigates a post-breakup journey, leaving behind a faithless lover. The magnetic pull of the B-movie-inspired “lesbian trilogy” kicks off with Jamie convincing her introverted companion Marian to join her escape from Philadelphia to Tallahassee.

Drive-Away Dolls begins in 1999 Philadelphia, where a jittery figure, nervously clutches a silver case. Enter Santos portrayed by Pedro Pascal. Shortly, Santos meets a gruesome fate and the ominous metal case swiftly seized by suited men.

Then enter Jamie (Margaret Qualley) navigating another breakup, this time with ex-girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein). Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), Jamie’s reserved friend, hungers for a taste of freedom. Their spontaneous decision to hit the road to Tallahassee promises a fresh start.

Curlie, the Drive-away shop owner, answers a call, the voice on the other end demands his Dodge in Tallahassee today, driven by a pair whose urgency matches the ticking clock. Marian and Jamie stroll in, seeking a route to Tallahassee. Curlie, connecting dots only he sees, nods to the unspoken and hands over the Dodge’s keys. No elaborate exchanges. Jamie and Marian reluctantly take on Curlie’s job to haul a car to Florida in a tight 24-hour stretch. Unbeknownst to them, they are in possession of that mystery briefcase. 

As Marian and Jamie set forth to Tallahassee amid the looming Y2K uncertainty of 1999, without the existence of any smartphones and reliant on archaic maps, the duo embodies a peculiar partnership as they’re chased by cartoonish goons (Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick, and C.J. Wilson) hungry for the secrets concealed within the mysterious briefcase. In this on-the-lam saga of a platonic duo, Jamie and Marian are portrayed as opposites in the lesbian community. Marian is captivated by her companion’s fearless spirit, while Jamie senses the need for Marian to break free from shyness. But Jamie, a tempest of reckless desire, constantly chasing new connections with little regard for the wreckage left behind. 

What ensues is a wild and sometimes surreal love saga, where Jamie and Marian find themselves thrust into a tumultuous situation they can’t escape.

The film’s pace is a gradual burn that eventually erupts into a chaotic frenzy. In the midst of its crazed and raunchy plot, the insertion of ’70s acid trips into the late ’90s landscape feels like a discordant, disorienting trip. This unapologetically adventurous and sex-drenched road trip is no place for innocence, featuring explicit nudity, a surplus of intimate scenes, and a fearless embrace of scandalous humor.

Drive-Away Dolls is playing in theatres now.