Saturday, September 17, 2011
The other night I was watching The Long Goodbye, one of my very favorite Robert Altman movies (which would place it high in the running for favorites all around), and marveling, as one is wont to do during such an occasion, at just how freaking cool Elliott Gould is. But the thing is that neither Altman nor Gould call much attention to it; it's almost as if they don't even notice it. They're just doing their thing, and their thing happened to result in one of the coolest film characters in one of the coolest visions of Los Angeles.
And Drive wants to be that. It wants to be it so badly that it will stop at nothing until you bow before its absolute, unrelenting cool. Driver (Ryan Gosling) is so cool, because he has no name and doesn't really say much. He just looks at you, constantly thinking, in the words of Chili Palmer, "You're mine. I fuckin' own you." But unlike Chili, Gosling is constantly feeling one way or the other about it - or anyway, his director is.
I've only seen one other Refn film to date (Bronson), and I liked it an awful lot, but he's up to something very different here. There, he was crafting a cage from which his totally unbound star could express his every whim; here, he's doing the expressing for his terribly contained characters, but he's doing it sort of poorly, cheaply. He's doing it with quasi-deep-cut music cues and oh-so-elliptical editing tricks. I'm a staunch defender and admirer of movies that put their style first, but Refn is suggesting here a film that doesn't exist. I love his vision of Los Angeles, in no small part because it so closely aligns with my own (and of course it would take a foreigner to show the self-loathing Coasters the beauty of this fine city), but this sort of pace would suggest a man apart from his surroundings, but in actuality, Driver lives a pretty cool life, and seems pretty satisfied with it. The resulting conflict comes because he went looking for it, not that it found him.
The film's violence, which is remarkably pronounced, is also something of a mystery. I know Driver's supposed to be all mysterious and so forth, but what are we to make of his actions when he actively hunts down, and kills in the most brutal way possible, his enemies? Is Refn trying to say something about man's inescapably violent nature? Or is Driver himself a man of violence, and his little affectations - his choice of music, his manner of dress, his constant supply of toothpicks - are just barely restraining his true nature? These are questions not asked by the film, but by me, on the ride home, digging deep into a film that is content simply imitating prior modes of communicating such concepts.
The performances, sadly, follow suit, playing modes of characters rather than characters operating within modes. Most of the cast seemed hired for their aesthetic qualities (which, in a cast that includes Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, and Christina Hendricks, are considerable), and were left at that. I am especially perplexed by the outcry for an Oscar nomination for Brooks, who, fine as ever, doesn't exactly bring any unexpected or exciting quality to his role of "mob boss."
I should say that I didn't outright hate Drive; I'm sympathetic to its general cause, stylistically, and especially the few instances in which it achieves the perfect nirvana it hopes to elicit throughout its running time. It has one of my favorite shots all year (a POV shot from Driver's perspective, looking through a window at Ron Perlman letting out a howl of a laugh while a middle-age woman looks on with something between contempt and boredom) There's an action scene at its center that is pretty fantastic, and by far the best extended sequence of the film, but then this isn't a film about action now is it. This is about crafting a specific mood, a certain vaguely detached vision of the seedier side of Los Angeles that has nothing new to say about detached visions nor Los Angeles. Nor crime. Nor, certainly, existentialism (and all the critics who throw that label around need to watch some serious amounts of Antonioni before they go too far with it). It's a film with nothing to say in search of a reason to be.