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L.A. Surreal

A film noir pays homage to the 1980s.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Movie still with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan

Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan

Courtesy FilmDistrict / Bold Films / OddLot Entertainment

Drive

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Drive is an extremely odd new film starring a nearly silent Ryan Gosling, who only a few months ago melted a hole in the screen as a glamorous big-talking rich kid in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Here he is a working-class mechanic/stuntman/getaway driver with a mysterious past who is transfixed by the innocent goodness of a waitress and her young son. When he tries to help the waitress out, he gets in over his head with the mob.

That’s a very conventional plotline, but the movie itself is anything but. Actually, Drive is really quite bananas. And kind of delightful if you don’t mind seeing people stuck in the eye with a fork and someone else’s head literally kicked in, that is. Which you probably do.

The movie makes no sense. In the world according to Drive, there are only two mobsters in L.A., and they’re both Jews nearing 60. Every criminal act in Los Angeles can be traced back to them. Inconsistencies abound. Gosling drives getaway cars and participates in movie stunts, both of which surely pay well. But he spends most of his time as a car mechanic and lives in a dump of an apartment building—which happens to come with a garage so big it belongs under a mall.

People are murdered in elevators, in parking lots, all over the place, and nobody says boo or blinks an eye. Cars crash into each other and no cop ever shows up to write anyone a ticket. The whole thing is ludicrous, but from the very beginning it’s clear that director Nicolas Winding Refn (yes, Refn) doesn’t expect us to believe in or care all that much about the action we’re witnessing.

Plot shmot, Refn says—not to mention character shmaracter, and consistency shmonsistency. Drive is a mood movie, not a story movie, and unless you’re a Jewish crook with an AARP card (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks are both really juicy in their roles), you’re not given much of a personality here. Gosling broods and seems to find it difficult to speak elementary English, he’s so interior. The British actress Carey Mulligan is reduced to trying to glow beatifically in her waitress costume.

Refn is far more interested in the shadows that roll over Gosling’s body and face as his car slices through the Los Angeles night. Which is the real star of Drive anyway. Movie directors are obsessed with night in Los Angeles and have been for decades—I think because they usually live up in the Hills like many rich Angelenos and therefore are always looking down (some of them stoned) at the undeniably surreal patterns created by thousands of yellow sodium street lights, the illuminated office buildings of West Hollywood, and the traffic helicopters all over the place.

You can’t really blame them—there is something unearthly about Los Angeles after the sun sets. Michael Mann has made two “L.A. at night” movies, Heat and Collateral. Robert Altman, a notorious stoner, also made two—one in the 1970s called The Long Goodbye and one in the 1990s called Short Cuts. The last movie made by Hal Ashby, the great 1970s director who apparently was never actually unstoned, was 8 Million Ways to Die—a genuine piece of junk art about an alcoholic detective investigating the murder of a hooker that was released in 1986. Drive consciously evokes it—as it does similar movies released around the same time like Into the Night, To Live and Die in L.A., Against All Odds, Tequila Sunrise, and 52 Pick-Up. Like them, it has a soundtrack dominated by synth pop, silent central characters, spectacularly vivid villains, a few naked girls, and cars that do crazy things on Sunset Boulevard. Indeed, Refn wants Drive to appear as though it was made in the 1980s (despite the presence in the opening scene of the Staples Center). We see a shot of a television showing a bulletin that looks like an “Eyewitness News” from 1985. Someone says in the course of the movie that the Chevy Impala is the most popular car on the road, which hasn’t been true for 30 years.

This may help explain why Drive isn’t making much money. Who wants to see a feature-length and lovingly detailed tribute to a mini-genre—’80s L.A. noir—that flopped with audiences the first time? Well, to tell you the truth, I do. I adored those movies when they came out, because they were propulsive and fun—and I was in my mid-20s, and even when I found a movie indefensible I could still enjoy it. That’s usually not true any longer, and Drive is indefensible, but I could hear my 25-year-old self whispering in my ear, “Don’t be a spoilsport.” So I’m not.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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