“If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window; anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun. I drive.”
The first 15 minutes of “Drive” perfectly set the tone for the narrative that follows. As the movie opens we are introduced to the driver, who we see preparing for a job. We hear him speak the words above, we see him pick up his car, and then we see the man at work. No lines are spoken, but the tension of every moment jumps off the screen, driven even higher by the propulsive bass line you hear on the soundtrack. As a whole, it is a hypnotic opening – and certainly the strongest opening to any film I’ve seen since the brilliant, almost silent first chapters of “There Will Be Blood.”
As portrayed by Ryan Gosling, the driver (we never learn his name) is a cipher. He's “a quiet man” – the kind of quiet man you sometimes read about in the papers. Even in his tender moments – reaching out to the young woman who lives in the apartment next door with her son, or watching TV with the young boy – there is a a sense of danger, lurking just below the surface. We know nothing about his background, or what forces – internal, external or some combination of the two – turned him into the man he is. And part of the puzzle of “Drive” is trying to figure out exactly who and what the driver is. Is he an innocent, trapped in a situation where the only way out is to inflict extreme violence on those who would do the same to him? Or is the extreme violence a part of his nature – inevitable, and just waiting for an outlet to express itself?
From the time the movie starts, you know that something bad is going to happen; it’s just a matter of time. And when the bad thing happens, the movie shifts gears faster than the Mustang that Gosling drives in the movie’s most exciting, exhilarating moment – a chase where failure to escape means certain death.
That the driver has a goodness in his soul is what leads to the clusterfuck in which he finds himself. The husband of the woman next door has come home from prison, and is determined to stay on the right side of the law, for his family. But he’s racked up protection debts in prison, and some “old friends” come calling to enlist his help in a heist that will erase (or at least reduce) his debt. When he refuses, he’s badly beaten, in front of his son, and with a warning that the next visit will be to that son and his mother. The driver witnesses the aftermath of the beating, and offers to help drive his neighbor on the job, and further help by telling the architect of the heist that this one job will erase the debt. Except it’s a set-up, with mob money involved, and before you know it bodies are dropping like flies and the driver finds himself in a trap from which there may be no escape. The rest of the movie boils down to the driver trying to find a way out for himself, the woman, and the boy.
The entire cast is terrific. Gosling’s face never wavers from its laconic look, but somehow that just makes him look scarier. The increasing amounts of blood on the silk jacket that never leaves his side, rather than the expressions on his face, tell the story of what is happening. As his neighbor, Carey Mulligan is the driver’s polar opposite, with every emotion and hope clearly evident on her face. Bryan Cranston is great as Shannon, the mechanic, raconteur and would-be entrepreneur who might as well have “doomed” etched on his forehead. Ron Perlman is genuinely frightening as a hood with much more brawn than brains, and Oscar Isaac is effective and affecting as Standard, the husband and tragic figure who really did learn a lesson in prison and now just wants to do the right thing.
But the biggest acting kudos go to Albert Brooks, who is brilliant as Bernie Rose, the part gangster, part businessman who once produced films (“action films, sexy stuff – one critic called them European…”) and now makes investments, and hurts people when those investments don’t come through. Brooks is Perlman’s partner, and you get the feeling that he’s cleaned up a lot of his messes over the years (which leads to one of the film’s best jokes, when Brooks creates a little mess of his own, with the help of a knife and fork). Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching Brooks perform various types of comedy for over 40 years now, but the character he creates in Rose is entirely unexpected – entirely convincing, but unexpected. You get the sense that Rose genuinely wants things to work out for Shannon, the driver and the woman, but once he’s at risk, he’ll do what he has to in order to get out with his skin intact.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn gives the movie a look that is very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s work in “Thief,” “Manhunter” and “Heat.” Los Angeles deserves a listing in the cast credits, because she’s never looked more sleek and stylish – particularly during the shots at night. Even the score (by Cliff Martinez) feels Mann-like, particularly in those first shots, which almost sound as if they are an homage to the great Tangerine Dream score featured in “Thief.”
Suffice to say, “Drive” is not your ordinary, run of the mill action film. One could even be forgiven for calling it an art film. It should be noted that it probably is not for everyone – the violence is never gratuitous, but it is brutal and shocking. Where it will stand at the end of the year is to be seen, but I’d be surprised if it drops out of my Top 5 for 2011.