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To live and die in Echo Park: ‘Drive’

Ryan Gosling in "Drive"
Photo courtesy of FilmDistrict
Ryan Gosling in “Drive”

Drive” is getting a lot of people excited nowadays. It’s a heist-gone-wrong film, mostly set around the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles — one of my old neighborhoods, and I just complained that films rarely actually look like the places where they are set. But this looks like Echo Park, with its peeled-paint storefronts and unexpectedly lush esplanade. This was once the home of Steve McQueen, who was a fan of fast cars, and Art Ingels, an Indy race car builder who was also responsible for building the very first go-cart.

I mention these things because the unnamed main character in the film, played by Ryan Gosling, is a grease money and aspiring stock car racer. On occasion, at night, he’s the driver for heists, which we see in the very first scene in the film. We also see that he’s very, very good at driving — the sequence isn’t a car chase, but, instead, a cat and mouse game between Gosling and the cops, in which he is repeatedly able to evade them because he seems to know every little corner street in Los Angeles. And so Echo Park is a good location for his character, and it’s also appropriate that it seems set in and around the actual Echo Park.

This is a terrifically interesting film, and not just because it’s a solid story. “Drive” is as much a cinematic patchwork as any film by Quentin Tarantino, but it’s a lot less showy about it. Tarantino approaches film with the instincts of a collage-maker, combining hundreds of previous films into a crazy quilt patchwork that always tip their hat to their sources. His films are hyperkinetic, often benefiting from the rush of sudden transitions and a mad outpouring of entertainingly delirious dialogue.

“Drive” is very nearly the opposite. In some ways, there is no missing its influences. There is the opening credits, as an example, featuring pink handwriting that is obviously borrowed from 1983’s “Risky Business” — initially a puzzling choice, until you remember that the film told the story of a young man who crossed a local criminal, and features an exhilarating car chase in a Porsche. There are scenes in “Drive” that seem to deliberately evoke Michael Mann’s crime films from the ’80s, such as “Thief,” and the soundtrack, which recalls ’80s synthpop, might have been lifted from “To Love and Die in LA.” And, more than anything, Ryan Gosling is meant to evoke his Echo Park neighbor, Steve McQueen.

Gosling isn’t McQueen, of course; the latter had a wry, hangdog handsomeness, while Gosling looks a bit like a newspaper caricature of a pretty boy, with sharp features and a heroic jaw. But here Gosling shares McQueen’s laconic ease onscreen, as well as his taste for casual workingman’s clothes (Gosling is often in blue jeans and a white club jacket with a scorpion on the back; when he drives, he wears leather driving gloves). And he has almost no dialogue in this film — he and director Nicolas Winding Refn reportedly went through the script and erased any line of dialogue that seemed superfluous, which sometimes included answers to questions. People will ask him things in the film, and Gosling will just stare back, a strange, private smile playing along the corner of his mouth. His lack of dialogue means that he and other characters often communicate by staring at each other for a really long time, grinning. It’s like the whole film is in a private joke, and I suspect that’s part of its appeal — it’s hard to not want to be in on that joke as well.

Unlike Tarantino’s films, all of these borrowed details seem to be part of one complete film — one that is, in fact, a sort of standard-issue crime caper that used to be very well done in the ’70s, and is almost never well done nowadays. A pawn shop is robbed. A man is killed. There is a double-cross. And then the bodies start piling up. Crime is primarily a world of attrition, and when things really go wrong, nobody gets out alive. Director Refn takes great pains to emphasize that here — gunshots are deafening, and bloodshed is grotesque. Nowadays we see so much violence on the screen that it is easy to be numbed by it, but Refn seeks to un-numb us, again in the great tradition of ’70s cinema. (There’s another film that came out this weekend based on a ’70s film, “Straw Dogs,” by Sam Peckinpah, who was especially curious about this subject; out of the blue it’s 1971 all over again.) 

There’s a moment in the film in which Gosling goes to confront a mobster, and Gosling wears a latex mask from a film set. It’s an enormous thing, bald and brutish, and it’s one of the few moments where the film seems to have taken great liberties with mood — it could be a scene from a slasher film. Even still, in a film in which violence is always treated as a disturbing spectacle, this feels appropriate. Nobody dies well, and sometimes death takes an especially bizarre form. It’s no wonder the film is dedicated to cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who specialized in bizarre forms. This is very much a mainstream film trying to be a cult film. And I suspect it will succeed, both as a blockbuster and a midnight movie.

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