“Drive-Away Dolls” Is a Raunchy Caper About Lesbians and the Men Who Fear Us

This Drive-Away Dolls review is spoiler-free. 

The Coen Brothers were never just two guys.

Even with filmmakers as distinctive as Joel and Ethan Coen, the auteur theory is a myth. To be an auteur or filmmaking duo — especially a brothers — is to be good at branding.

Since their debut feature, they’ve collaborated with many of the same actors including Joel Coen’s wife Frances McDormand. Carter Burwell has scored all of their films. Roger Deakins shot most of them. Mary Zophres as costume designer, Jess Gonchor as art director, Skip Lievsay as sound designer. The Coens famously edit their own films under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, but there’s still an editorial department — an editorial department that included Ethan Coen’s wife Tricia Cooke before she became a fully credited editor on three of their films.

The guilds may have strict rules, but identities on a film set can be as loose as the identities at a queer party. A film is a collaboration — what you see on screen is a product of every single person in the credits and, sometimes, even people not in the credits. Ethan Coen wasn’t even listed as a director on the Coens’ films until The Ladykillers due to a DGA rule.

This is to say, when the Coen Brothers announced their split, it wasn’t an end to their body of work as much as a reconfiguration. Joel Coen directed a stylish adaptation of Macbeth with McDormand as his lady and Ethan Coen announced a trilogy of lesbian comedies with Cooke joining him as co-producer, co-writer, and, yes, editor.

The first of those films is Drive-Away Dolls and its mix of perspectives is a testament to the art of collaboration. I went into the film knowing it was the work of a famous male director and his queer wife, but I didn’t expect the film to embrace those dueling energies with such a delightful gusto. The film transfuses a queer fluidity into its filmmaking and, as a result, is the best film either Coen has made in over a decade.

Drive-Away Dolls is about Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), an uptight lesbian in 1999, and her best friend Jamie (Margaret Qualley), a serial cheater from Texas, who get roped into a caper. They set off on a road trip to Florida — Marian to visit some family, Jamie to get away from her abusive cop ex (Beanie Feldstein) — and things take a turn when they discover a mysterious suitcase in their trunk.

While the film has echoes of past Coen Brothers films, especially Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Burn After Reading, it also feels fresh. It has a new visual style courtesy of DP Ari Wegner — who shot Zola, The Power of the Dog, and Eileen — and a clear voice true to Coen and Cooke as collaborators. It’s unabashedly a lesbian film and, most importantly, a lesbian film true to a specific era. Cooke is bringing in her own experiences and it’s a delight to have a queer film that isn’t trying to be everything to everyone. This is about a specific subset of cis lesbians — it represents them well without being regressive to anyone else.

This approach extends to its treatment of law enforcement. Rather than pay lip service to anti-police sentiments while still upholding their power — a common practice in post-2020 Hollywood! — the film simply presents the police as power-hungry, trigger-happy, and, most of all, stupid. Beanie Feldstein is a blast as an incompetent dope with anger issues worthy of the Coen filmography long-filled with similar characters.

Geraldine Viswanathan may be more believable as a sex-starved Type A dyke than Margaret Qualley is as a Texan lesthario, but their chemistry together makes up for any deficiencies. Their friendship feels true, their dynamic is very gay, and the reality of the relationship matters more than the reality of the individual in this kind of heightened universe.

Feldstein isn’t the only standout in the supporting cast. Colman Domingo is reliably excellent, Matt Damon is having a goofy good time, and even famous bisexual Miley Cyrus has a perfect cameo.

It’s hard to delve too deep into the film’s themes without giving anything away, but if Burn After Reading satirized the CIA with gymbos, this satirizes masculine insecurity with dykes. It’s not just a film made by a queer woman and her husband. It’s a film about that dynamic — about every straight man faced with the daunting power of lesbians.

And, with that in mind, the film is raunchy. There are multiple lesbian sex scenes that manage to be funny, erotic, or both. Throughout the movie, women have sex with women in all sorts of configurations true to lesbians, bisexuals, and other queer people everywhere.

While it may lack the polished quality of the Coens’ most celebrated works, it’s an exciting next chapter for this collective of filmmakers and a thrilling debut from Cooke as co-writer. It’s a road trip movie, a crime farce, and a romcom all rolled up into one smart and messy 84 minute package.

Jamie may question whether love is relevant to the 21st century lesbian, but there’s no question that Tricia Cooke and Ethan Coen’s films will be plenty relevant. I’ll welcome more Coen Brothers movies someday — for now I want more movies from Coen brother and his queer wife.

Drive-Away Dolls is now in theatres. 

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 520 articles for us.


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