L.A.’s an interesting place. Although the germination of American movies happened in New York with Edison and Dickson, a bunch of aspiring businessmen discovered around the turn of the 20th century that seating the movie industry in southern California, and in L.A. in particular, was the way to go. The weather was nice year round. There were oceans, deserts, mountains, and plenty of cheap land on which to build sets or to use as a double for almost any exotic setting. And best of all (I’m interpolating), L.A. seemed to fulfill the old American ideal of eminent domain: if we were going to do big things with this burgeoning technology, we were going to do them in style, using the full breadth of the country we’d conquered. Los Angeles, as far West as you could go in America, fostered a movie business better than any place ever has, and it remains first and foremost in people’s minds when they think of movies.
But by many accounts, or lamentations, Hollywood doesn’t shoot a whole lot of its material at home anymore. A few US states, and apparently all of Canada, have found it quite lucrative to offer tax breaks to movie studios that choose their spot to bring big productions and Hollywood money. In a movie sense, L.A. has been outsourced to the rest of America, leaving the sprawling metropolis in the desert somewhat of an empty symbol of the legend it created. L.A. is about a lot more than the movies, but whatever happens there still plays out under the Hollywood sign.
This seething, movie-hooked, and barren L.A. is the setting of Nicolas Winding Refn’s astounding trash-art thriller Drive. It concerns a man-with-no-name on the fringes of Hollywood, a stuntman called Driver (Ryan Gosling), who’s been in L.A. an indeterminate amount of time, came from an undisclosed location (most likely one of those places Hollywood has taken its shoots), and has a chilling talent for driving. He’s a stoic, professional, urban loner, cut from the same cloth as Alain Delon in a number of the Melville films to which Drive pays homage.
Driver has a benefactor, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who’s always referring to him, with his many talents, as the best he’s ever seen. Driver works as an auto mechanic and appears now and again on the sets of vapid-looking films, crashing cop cars while wearing latex masks, the better to resemble whichever actor has refused to perform his own stunts. Shannon, somewhat of a low-level hood, has gotten him these gigs based on a belief in his talent with cars. He’s also found him his third, most interesting job: manning the getaway vehicle for the occasional midnight heist. This, and not the movies, is how Driver prefers to use his talent. It’s how he becomes embroiled in the plot that propels Drive through its pileup of engrossing machinations, and it’s how Refn brilliantly blurs the line between movies and life. Driver, on the outskirts of the film industry, is in the dead center of what L.A. is really about.
Drive’s unassuming yet malicious villain, a movie producer-turned-gangster named Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), laments late in the movie that out of 20,000 L.A. burglaries each year, Driver had to get involved in the exact wrong one, the one organized by Rose himself. His figures aren’t invented for the movie’s sake. Statistically, L.A. really is a city of heists. Directors like Michael Mann — another auteur whose films Drive owes a debt of homage — have done a crisp job of streamlining L.A.’s heist culture. But Refn, a Danish master shooting in America for the first time, isn’t interested in recreating the actual crimes plaguing L.A., so much as with finding the places — low-rent garages and mob-run Chinese joints — where Hollywood outcasts intersect with the city itself, then stomping those places on the head with a boot.
Refn’s L.A. looks like it would take a good driver with an unfailing sense of direction to get around in. That is, he makes the city feel as big and diverse and capable of devouring people as it really is. Then he adds movie-hooked gangsters and Hollywood hangers-on to a plot that expertly mixes the best crime films (Melville, Mann, Dassin, Hill) and shoots the whole thing with an operatic delicacy. Technically, there are only three car chases in this movie — but witness the way that Driver, played implacably and impeccably by the always-sharp Gosling, handles every situation the movie puts him through as if he were calmly upshifting around a hairpin turn. Within the confines of an elevator, Driver can deliver the most romantic kiss a leading man has ever given his love interest while keeping at bay a thug whose face he will presently smash in.
The momentum that carries Drive is based off of terrifyingly precise violence — from Driver and from the gangsters that he falls in with — and, just as precisely, a tender sense of sympathy. Although Driver is a consummate pro, his friendship with Shannon, a born loser perpetually under the thumb of those gangsters, becomes the crack in his perfect façade. So it is with heroes like Driver: they can no more help a strong sense of loyalty towards weaker people than they can stop doing dangerous things according to their code of honor.
They can’t keep away from beautiful women, either. Driver’s neighbor and ongoing crush, Irene (Carey Mulligan), is a meek Denny’s waitress with a sweet little son and a husband recently released from prison. As with any good crime thriller, the ex-con husband is in serious debt to some gangsters. These happen to be Bernie Rose and his puggish partner Nino (the overtly scary Ron Perlman), the same badasses with whom Shannon and Driver have gotten in deep. Needless to say, Driver’s personal and professional lives are bound to cross in dangerous ways. The strange entanglements in Driver’s life are as fateful and tawdry as the films he stunts for are hackneyed and dry.
Ryan Gosling reportedly handpicked Refn to direct this movie. This shows two things: (1) that Gosling understands the movie fully, which is evident from watching it; and (2) that even as a hired-gun, Refn is an auteur to be reckoned with. His last two films, 2008’s Bronson, about a real-life professional prison inmate, and 2009’s Valhalla Rising, about a hellish Viking expedition to the new world, are more directly disturbing than they are poignant. In this sense, they are like primers for Drive, which is a clear cut above them both: it takes their obsession with men who don’t quite understand their own viciousness and, without tipping its hand or sacrificing style, adds the simple element of the Movies themselves, telling us in no uncertain terms that the eminent domain of Hollywood is heroes like Driver, who make us love them for their cold, dark professional selves.