Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Drive": To Live and Drive in L.A.

The more I sit here thinking about "Drive," the more parallels I find to "To Live and Die in L.A." This is high praise, as TLADILA is one of my all-time favorite (and most often watched) films. Nicolas Winding Refn's picture opens with Ryan Gosling acting as a getaway driver for two robbers (his day job is as a stunt driver for the movies). "I give you a five minute window," he tells them. "Anything that happens in those five minutes, I've got you covered. Something happens a minute on either side, you're on your own." The gorgeous lights of downtown L.A. at night play across Gosling's face, which we see mostly through his rearview mirror. This sequence can't compare to TLADILA's definitive car chase (driven the wrong way through the L.A. freeway system), but it's a terrific opening set to - of all things - Ralph Lawler's radio call of a Clippers-Raptors game (you had to know I was going to like this movie). Did I hear echoes of William Petersen extolling the virtues of Quentin Dailey's jumper in TLADILA? Yeah, I did. (By the way, later in the movie Gosling takes his neighbor Carey Mulligan and her son on a ride through the same L.A. River basin featured prominently in the TLADILA chase.)

Then the opening credits roll. They are handwritten, like TLADILA's, and in the hot pink of the "Miami Vice" 80s (TLADILA's were in neon red, orange and green). The whole movie is very much of the 80s, with a must-own soundtrack of distrait, vaguely New Wave songs (in one, a Buggle-esque robotic Kewpie doll-voiced singer tells of "a real hero and a real human being"). The score, too, is loud and unapologetic, and a bit out of its time: Something dramatic is about to happen, it warns, not in a cheesy, bad-horror-movie way, but so as to heighten our anxiety and intensify what follows. I could hear in my mind the sound at the very end of TLADILA, when John Pankow tells Darlanne Fluegel, "You're working for me," and she sees Petersen's Chance in her mind's eye. Both movies are evocative on a visual and an aural level, but also on a less empirical level - the level of mood and of soul. Los Angeles - this uniquely sprawling and variegated of American cities - lies deep in the soul of both films, and elicits the sort of subconscious, almost dreamlike connections I felt in, say (to name a very different kind of movie), "Spirited Away."

There's a plot to "Drive," but it's not as good as TLADILA's. Gosling sweetens on Mulligan and, when her husband gets out of prison owing protection money to some thugs, who bloodily beat the husband and threaten to come after her and her son next, volunteers to drive getaway while the husband robs a pawnshop to get the cash to pay off the goons. You will not be surprised to learn the robbery goes awry, there are crossings and double-crossings and a great deal of violence. Much has been written of the violence, including many descriptions of it as gore. "Drive" is no more a gorefest than TLADILA. In both, violent people engaged in dark business meet with death and injury in ways presented realistically and naturalistically - not least in their casualness. (The gunshot death of Petersen's Chance, TLADILA's heroic figure, in a gym locker room remains a count-on-one-hand rarity among studio productions.)

Gosling, speaking only when absolutely necessary and sucking on a toothpick throughout, is enormously likable in this picture. Mulligan makes a pleasant counterweight, but is not stretched as an actress in this part. (It is not a fatal flaw that "Drive" is unabashedly a testosterone-driven movie.) Albert Brooks has a rare meaty part as a mob boss who, early on, partners with Gosling and Bryan Cranston in a racing-car enterprise, then later shows a far more sinister side. Brooks is right on point: he talks in his own voice, and there's not a bit of sadism to his violence. "There, it's over, it's over, there's no pain," he tells one player after cutting off his arm.

I don't want to overstate the case. "Drive" is not the best movie of the year, nor will it likely achieve the iconic status to which it aims. (Gosling's character is known, existentially, simply as "Driver.") Also, while I see countless connections to TLADILA, it is in no way an explicit homage or anything less than its own movie. But it too is, as my friend put it when we left the theater, "badass." And - remembering the name of Chance's partner, the one who was killed early on and whom Chance vowed to avenge at the hands of Willem Dafoe's Rick Masters - did I mention there's an actor named Jimmy Hart in a bit part in "Drive"?

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