In Drive, Ryan Gosling is a getaway man for hire. The movie’s opening scene finds him standing before a window overlooking the Los Angeles grid, laying down the terms of his contract over the telephone: For five minutes, timed by the wristwatch he sets on the dashboard, he’ll wait with his car at a designated hour and place for his client, undeterred by whatever else those minutes may bring—shots fired, random disaster, caprices of nature. Those five minutes belong to whoever has hired him, and then he’s gone, either with his passengers and their loot or without them if they’re a moment late. Weaving his way through L.A., dodging police in pursuit and copter searchlights above, Gosling loses himself in an exiting Staples Center crowd that, with the basketball game broadcasting on his radio, he’s factored into his escape. Never called by name, over the course of the film Gosling changes lives with the hours; up with the sun, he’s a stuntman, sometimes staging spectacular car crashes or one of those high-speed chases that defy what the movies refer to as “continuity,” ascending some hill in one part of the city and descending in another, as though having traveled through a wormhole.
L.A. invented continuity, and then the city’s streets wrought havoc on it. Moviemaking is a time machine: narrative spliced into fragments and reassembled into a constant present, the end of a story shot before the beginning, which is shot after the middle. So for the sake of a chronology that the audience understands, sequences filmed out of order are unified by their details—the same cut in the hero’s forehead from the blow afflicted in a previous scene that in fact may not have been filmed yet. The femme fatale walks into a downtown club, and the window says HAPPY HOUR 4:30-6; a moment later the same words can be seen in reverse from the other side of the window on a set in Burbank ten miles away from where the exterior was shot. Before L.A. and the movies, continuity was a math term, dictating that “what succeeds for the finite succeeds for the infinite,” whatever the hell that means. But only in a town like L.A. would a business like the movies actually hire someone—usually known as a script supervisor but sometimes called a continuity supervisor—to keep straight the finite from the infinite, to make sure that at any given moment everyone knows whether they’re in the past or the future.
The city’s streets transcend continuity because they transcend the city they connect. L.A. streets aren’t just paved real estate but a cosmology, a manifestation of the city’s sensibility. Unlike the defined interiors of noirs set in San Francisco (The Maltese Falcon) or New York (Sweet Smell of Success), L.A. noir is in constant motion, from Humphrey Bogart rambling nocturnal Laurel Canyon roads in The Big Sleep to Elliott Gould winding along the beach-bound boulevards of The Long Goodbye to Jake Gittes crossing the Valley’s dusty, tree-canopied byways in Chinatown. In Kiss Me Deadly, Devil in a Blue Dress, and L.A. Confidential, the streets are what bring damnation to paradise; in Jackie Brown, people get dispatched in car trunks and parking lots in the tradition of Double Indemnity, where murder lurks in the backseat. A late-night cruise to the sea finds Bogart delivering to Gloria Grahame In a Lonely Place’s immortal line “I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few days while she loved me,” the street drawing out his romanticism while confined spaces reveal his violence. Seven miles of Sunset Boulevard take William Holden—fleeing repossession of his car, which in L.A. is like repossession of the ground—from desperation as an out-of-work writer to the well-kept doom of a gigolo; in Repo Man three decades later, the same repo men are punk rockers and the same streets of Drive are science fiction runways. In Rebel Without a Cause and Boyz n the Hood, children grow up on the streets or die trying; in Boogie Nights and Mulholland Drive, they become stars or deranged at the intersection of Sex and Mayhem. For the L.A. streets’ most prominent poet, Michael Mann (a Chicago kid?), all of Heat’s crucial decisions are made and its ruthless verdicts delivered on the blacktop; in Collateral, under cover of darkness the streets represent execution and escape, as a cabbie held hostage takes an assassin on his rounds. In the future-L.A. of Blade Runner, the brakes of gravity have given out and the streets have exhausted the earth altogether, taking to the skies. The L.A. of tomorrow is vertical.
Nothing is more linear than a street, nothing has a more fixed beginning, middle, and end. A street is a story in asphalt—so it’s a paradox that the streets are the one place where the movies play fast and loose with continuity, something to which L.A. streets lend themselves as naturally as does the city’s psyche. Can anyone explain San Vicente Boulevard, which ends in West Hollywood and picks up on the other side of the 405? A film that’s obsessive about the lint on a girl’s sweater thinks nothing of a car barreling down Pico and turning onto Lankershim. In Drive there’s at least one such lapse of continuity, though in a time of recession and the city of the commute, maybe it’s just a function of how far people will go these days for work: Gosling is seen emerging from a market at 6th and Alvarado while working his other day job (when he’s not crashing cars in movies) fixing cars in Reseda. This is all the more conspicuous because one of the pleasures of a movie that’s so much about L.A.’s streets is the integrity of Drive’s geography, which is fitting for a film about mastering the streets to stay alive. Those opening moments—Gosling’s getaway man negotiating the night’s industrial netherworld—are the film’s best. If you watch as someone who knows the city, you believe every turn of every corner he makes.
As much as any movie in memory, Drive is a mobile poem to L.A. the horizontal. While the movie adheres most rigorously to the logic of its landscape, the story itself takes leave of logic even as what happens next becomes as predictable as a street sign. Amid his various enterprises Gosling falls in love with Carey Mulligan, the next-door mom raising her son alone until the father returns from prison; childlike in his own way, Gosling bonds with the boy. Soon what transpires calls for that inevitable one last job, which calls for that inevitable one final act of retribution and redemption in order to save a family that never can be his. At once more thrilling and problematic are the stylistic choices—who knew that without changing anything about himself whatsoever, Albert Brooks as a crime boss could be so malevolent?—including the preposterous violence; a bit of carnage in an elevator is so over the top, it verges on dadaism, plunging the drama into absurdity. After that, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (who won the best director award this year at Cannes) loses control of his material. Drive is best behind the wheel, most in command when not trying to take every corner at 80 miles an hour. With the finite in the rearview mirror and the infinite in the windshield, and laconic enough to make former tight-lipped samurai of the streets from Mitchum to McQueen to Eastwood sound like motormouths, Gosling circles the cul-de-sac of his life searching for its own continuity, and for the name that the movie never gives him.
Illustration by John Ritter