Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Drive, We Said

My Bloody Valentine--"Drive It All Over Me" (mp3)

If there was any doubt that Ryan Gosling is the greatest actor of his generation, Drive lays that controversy to rest definitively. In it, Gosling takes a character type that Jason Strathan introduced in the Transporter series, throws out all of the macho, Euro-glamorous bullshit, and plays out the character in the ways that such a character would really play out. It's not pretty; in fact, it's downright ugly. And costly.

Just as in the Strathan movies, Gosling plays a character who will drive other people in and out of dangerous situations for money. Just as in those movies, the character has a set of rules that he uses to stay disconnected from his payloads. But that's where the similarity ends. Gone are the exotic European locales. Gone are the unbelievably beautiful actors. Gone are the big payoffs. All that is left is L.A. And what an L.A. it is, a city of unbelieveable sprawlingness when seen from a high perch, of seedy strip malls when observed up close. And people who have been cast out of Hollywood or hang only on its fringes, but are still looking to score. Or to get by. There isn't much difference.

Ostensibly an action film, Drive takes almost every convention of the genre and flips it on its head. Gosling,'s character, of course, is at the center of this; as hero, he moves through the city either nearly catatonic or simultaneously moral and sociopathic. Both make sense for him, as he reserves his actions until he needs them, and then his pent-up responses can completely overwhelm a situation.

But I am talking about the movie, which is stunning in its own right, when I mean to talk about Ryan Gosling. If you saw Robert DeNiro when he was young--in Mean Streets and The Godfather, Part II and Taxi Driver, then you can understand the genius of Ryan Gosling. Like DeNiro, Gosling makes his living on oddball, inarticulate characters. DeNiro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, as well as his character Michael in The Deer Hunter, could not find enough in the language to express themselves, relying instead on meaningless, self-focused phrases like "Are you talking to me?" or "This is this" that Derrida would have had a field day analyzing.

When Gosling's character in Drive moves beyond the monosyllabic utterances a good third of the way into the film (ignoring, of course, his memorized speech about his driving rules at the start on the phone), it is to issue a stock, cliched threat to a former client. In fact, his character has almost nothing interesting to say the entire movie, except occasionally when talking to a child. Instead, it is his actions that keep us enraptured--a kiss at the most inappropriate of moments, the way his fist clenches inside a leather driving glove, and, perhaps most of all, his smile.

This actor's smile envelops the entire movie, balances out his blank stare. It has to be something that Gosling figured out when preparing for the part; there is no way that it is written into a Hollywood script, however indie the movie might be. That smile is, by turns, protective, genuine, nostalgic, bemused,
resigned, even vulnerable. It is his way of communicating with other people in ways that words can no longer capture for him. We don't know a thing about his past except that there is nothing to say about it.

I have a student who turned down a role in our school's production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest because it didn't have enough lines. His decision reveals, in my opinion, his lack of understanding of what acting is about, especially in light of Gosling's performance in Drive. In the film, words matter very little, even for two people developing a love for each other. It is gestures, it is the decisions and the doing, however flawed, that reveal the truth about every person in the film. And Gosling is particularly masterful in portraying that hesitation, that careful choosing of when to speak. When he speaks too much, he says too much.

I am no aficionado of Gosling's work. At best, I'm a casual fan. Yes, I was in awe of his performance in Half-Nelson, but I have yet to see Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine, or even much of The Notebook. But even the few roles I've seen him play have told me that, eventually, I need to see everything that he's doing or done. It got to that point with DeNiro back in the late 70's and early 80's. After seeing the early films, I just felt like I needed to see whatever he was doing.

With Gosling's movies, the days after seeing him act have been filled with regular, intermittent reflection on the recurring images in my head. His characters, their behaviors and gestures are not easily forgotten. When I talk to other people who have seen the same movie, there is this kind of tendency to reopen whatever wounds and scabs watching the movie gave us. We can't help it. Gosling's presence is that real.

Like most of the actors that have come before him, Gosling is likely to eventually be overwhelmed by Hollywood and its demands, and then will, like DeNiro, become a parody of himself, his edge and his toughness and his tenderness used against him for some comic purpose. Maybe Daniel Day-Lewis has avoided that. If so, I can't think of anyone else who has. But for now, Ryan Gosling is like the fighter Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, so committed to his craft that he has no sense of the bigger picture, the danger he's in, the damage that he can do. He's just a man doing a job.

What I like about Gosling is that it's almost impossible to imagine him hanging out in his trailer on the set playing poker with his buddies. No, instead I get a sense of his method, of his immersion, of his commitment to doing everything his character would do and nothing that he wouldn't.

Which is why Drive provides such a perfect role for him. He really does seem like the kind of guy who would offer a little kid a toothpick, simply because a toothpick in the side of his mouth is a small pleasure for him, with no awareness of why a child might not see that as a meaningful gift. That Gosling, he's all in. And wherever he's driving, I think most of us will want to ride along.


troutking said...

Of course you know that DeNiro got "you talkin' to me?" from the Boss after seeing a show in LA.

goofytakemyhand said...

No mp3 of Zevon's Boom Boom Mancini????

Bob said...

Nope, didn't know that. Cool.

Bob said...

Goof, you've got several versions already and so do I. What would be the point?

Thom Anon said...

Gosling kicks ass in Blue Valentine, but be warned: that movie is a heart-wrecker.