Possible spoilers ahead, for those interested in reading/watching the following: Drive by James Sallis; Drive (directed) by Nicolas Winding Refn; Charley Varrick (directed) by Don Siegel; Reservoir Dogs (written & directed) by Quentin Tarantino; Queenpin by Megan Abbott; No Country For Old Men (directed) by Joel Coen; Thief (directed) by Michael Mann
The new movie Drive is based on a short novel by James Sallis, from 2005. I read it that year or the next, then pretty much forgot about it. That statement, in and of itself, isn’t so much a dismissal of the book as a consequence of the ridiculous number of books of its kind I was reading at the time – two or three a week. There was something of an explosion of neo-noir crime fiction writing around the middle of the oughts, along with dozens upon dozens of reprints of long-unavailable paperback originals from the post-war noir boom. I’d always been drawn to the genre and wanted to figure out how to write in it, and I was grateful for the opportunity to read the old stuff, and I was curious to see if I could tell whether the wave of cynicism recently attendant to the War on Terror would inform this new writing in the manner that cynicism about the idealized America that the veterans of World War Two found themselves returning to informed the moral landscape of the crime novels of the Gold Medal paperback era. Whew. Well, in a word, no. With the exception of a few major talents, most notably Megan Abbott and Jason Starr, the writers of the new noir seem like a bunch of kids whose sense of the genre’s history begins and ends at Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and even the best of their writing is similarly an exercise in style, with little consideration for much more than being “cool.” They pretty much treat the hard-won cynicism of their literary forebears as if it were something you can buy at a tattoo parlor.
It’s hard to say where Sallis fits in. I’ve read nothing else by him, but the bibliography at his official website includes a private detective series, three books on jazz guitar, an “experimental” novel, a translation of Raymond Queneau, work as a science fiction editor, and books of poetry. There’s nothing that says your basic polymath can’t also be a credible noir writer, but Drive just isn’t very good. Here’s the opening:
Much later, as he sat with his back against the inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room.
The story is but one paragraph old and I’m already confused. Much later, later still, but for now: Are we in the Motel 6 at paragraph’s end, or not? Are there two motels and twin pools of blood, one lapping toward him in his memory? How’s about Writer being, as they say, in the moment? Leaving the whole “pressure of light” business unparsed, it’s pretty important, in a thriller, to know the basic journalistic facts about the action at hand; it’s difficult to feel any tension if you have no idea what’s at stake, and it’s impossible to know what’s at stake when the logistics of the situation are indiscernible. (This is the same reason that most action scenes in contemporary films, with their splintered editing, leave no lasting impression.) Poets needn’t be clear thinkers, but someone turning their hand to noir had better be. The paragraph above unintentionally reads like Phillip K. Dick at his worst: with a head full of amphetamines, and the rent past due.
The film adaptation opens with more promise, with a pre-credit sequence that’s controlled and tense. After laying out the terms of his employment over the phone (“You don’t need to know the route…I’m the one driving…that’s all I do…you have five minutes inside…”etc.), Ryan Gosling exits an anonymous room in L.A., wordlessly retrieves an inconspicuous-looking, souped-up Chevy from chatty garage owner Bryan Cranston (“No one’s going to be looking at you in this car, kid”) and pulls up in the dark outside a chained gate in an industrial area. He straps a wristwatch to the steering wheel as two men in ski masks cross the street carrying bolt cutters. He tunes in the Clippers game on the car radio and the police band on a small portable. The men break open the gate and enter a warehouse through a loading dock door.
Up to this point, the director, Nicolas Winding Refn, seems to have the patience of a spider, and he maintains it through the getaway that follows – a sequence of Gosling evading, rather than outrunning, the police – that’s smarter and more exciting than…anything in the rest of the movie, unfortunately.
Having established Gosling’s character as a smart, cool loner, the film introduces his neighbor Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, to start the process of rendering him stupid and uncool and lonely. Irene has a husband in prison and a young son, who looks up to Gosling; a chaste romance has barely begun when the husband is released, returns to the apartment, and puts his family in jeopardy – unless Gosling helps him out. He does, but everything goes pear-shaped, and Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, as criminal associates of the aforementioned Bryan Cranston, need their bag of cash and their pound of flesh, in no particular order.
That’s it for the plot; it’s been done before, perhaps definitively in the great Don Siegel film Charley Varrick, with Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker and John Vernon. That, at any rate, was the movie I kept thinking about as I sat in the theater watching the second half of Drive. Joe Don Baker is terrifying in that movie, and he manages it without covering himself in blood; Walter Matthau stays a step ahead of him by not losing his cool. Unfortunately, Ryan Gosling’s character never saw Charley Varrick, so we are treated to the sight of him stomping on a man’s face until the man’s jawbone scuttles across the floor, revealing a penchant for savagery that makes no sense (nothing has prepared us for it), and from which the movie never recovers.
(An aside: there is a scene with very similar violence in Megan Abbott’s novel Queenpin, and it is tremendously effective. You might think the major difference would be that one is shown on the screen, and the other only described on the page, but the scene in Abbott’s book is harder to read than the scene in Drive is to watch. The major difference is that everything in Abbott’s book before that scene builds toward it, and everything after it is slowly backing away. In other words, everything has prepared us for it, yet it is still shocking. If it were a film instead of a novel, it would be in black and white, but that one scene would be in color.)
It’s true that it’s been many years since I saw Reservoir Dogs at the Michigan Theater and half the audience walked out in the middle of the scene when Michael Madsen cuts off the captive policeman’s ear, even though the evisceration takes place off-camera. I have a feeling that Nicolas Winding Refn would defend the gore in his movie as merely staying abreast of what people have come to expect in horror movies and video games, and by people we both would mean the 15 to 25 year olds who are the target audience for most movies. But there’s a huge audience for Drive that was lured in by the ridiculously-beautiful look of the trailer, and the footage of Albert Brooks saying “Whatever plans or dreams you might have…you’re going to have to put them on hold…for the rest of your life”…as if he was realizing a lifelong fantasy of playing the Kirk Douglas role in Out of the Past. That audience didn’t object to being shown what it was shown in Saving Private Ryan, but it must wonder what place charnel house imagery has in a stylish little noir.
How can this sort of story be filmed effectively, then, without blinking, while still seeming contemporary? As a recent example, think of the conclusion of the scene in No Country For Old Men when Josh Brolin shoots the pit bull that’s been pursuing him on the river: the dead dog he pushes off his chest is an obvious prop, without a drop of blood in sight; it diminishes the thrill of everything that’s come before not one iota.
Worse, to me, than any viscera in the film is what seems to be the idea behind it: an idea about purity. Gosling the loner loves Mulligan (and her child) with a purity you and I cannot understand, the film seems to say, and, to defend her, he has to say goodbye – which gives them permission to share the lone kiss they share – and turn himself into an animal. You are primed from the early scenes in the movie, and from all the movies of this type you’ve enjoyed in the past, to watch Gosling use his skill for outwitting cops against his fellow criminals, but, when his dream girl is in danger, he has to get down and roll around on the killing floor, ruining his pretty silk jacket.
And what of this pure love? Refn allows his stars to do little more than make eyes at each other, shyly, as if they were pre-teens. (In Michael Mann’s Thief, thirty years ago, James Caan courts Tuesday Weld by showing her the childish collage he made in prison, from magazine clippings – but Mann allows them to marry.) Would letting them take things any farther make Mulligan a bad mother? Would it make Gosling’s desire to protect her questionable somehow? This is the kind of old Hollywood morality that noir originally came into existence to cure, the kind of thing those WWII vets looked at and said, “Give me a fucking break.”