The first fifteen minutes of Drive may be the best movie I've seen this year. In an ordinary hotel room with a window that peers out on a neon-colored Los Angeles cityscape, a movie stuntman who enjoys a second career as a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling, in a commanding performance) is talking into his cell phone, tersely explaining his way of doing business to a prospective client on the other end. You have me for five minutes, he says, if you aren't back in the car by then, I'm gone. Hanging up, he heads to the garage, fires up his vehicle of choice and pulls out into the street.
Arriving at his destination -- a non-descript warehouse in an industrial neighborhood -- he puts five minutes on his clock and opens the back door. Two masked men scale the warehouse fence and force their way inside; a minutes passes, then another and another. One of the men emerges and makes straight for the idling car. His partner is still inside though and reports of the robbery have hit the police scanner. Sirens approach and, behind the steering wheel, the Driver (whose name is never revealed during the course of the movie) prepares to peel off. Just then, the second robber runs wildly out of the warehouse and leaps into the vehicle. The Driver promptly floors the gas and speeds away, the cops not far behind. His passengers are freaking out, but the Driver remains cool and collected, taking hairpin turns down back alley ways and navigating twisty side streets with expert precision. Eventually, he arrives at the Staples Center and pulls into the crowded parking garage. Once the car is parked, he gets out, pulls on a baseball cap and walks onto the sidewalk, vanishing into the crowd of post-game revelers just as uniformed officers arrive on the scene. Despite the odds, he's just pulled off the perfect getaway.
For fans of stylish (and heavily stylized) filmmaking, everything about this pre-credits sequence is invigorating, from the gorgeous inky-black cinematography (by Newton Thomas Sigel) to the razor-sharp editing (courtesy of Mat Newman) to the dreamy, synth-heavy score (composed by Cliff Martinez) to director Nicholas Winding Refn's unerring sense for the exact right place to put the camera. The rest of the movie is pretty great too, but this opening salvo dazzles and delights in a way few movies have this year. It gave me the same tingle of excitement I experienced when I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time -- that sense that I was in the hands of a director who understood and more importantly loved this material inside and out and was determined to get the audience drunk on repeated shots of pure cinema.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Refn wears his influences on his sleeve. In both its style, story and sensibility, Drive evokes the work of such filmmakers as William Friedkin (specifically To Live and Die in L.A.), Michael Mann (most notably Thief, Collateral and both the TV and film versions of Miami Vice) and John Boorman (director of the seminal L.A. noir Point Blank). But again like Tarantino, the Danish director is more than a gifted mimic. Rather he synthesizes these various cinematic reference points and comes up with his own distinct visual language. Drive may feel familiar, but it's not a glorified repeat -- it's a square-minded, small-scale genre picture told with exhilarating brio and showmanship.
As with so many noirs before it, at its core Drive is the story of a boy and a girl whose fledgling love affair is short-circuited by a series of poor decisions. Against his better judgment, the solitary Driver starts hanging around his cute-as-a-button neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has been left alone with her young son while her hubby (Oscar Isaac) is in the slammer. Their casual friendship quickly blossoms into something more; in the movie's most purely romantic moment, they take a drive together and her hand reaches for his by the dashboard light. But this love story comes to a screeching halt when her husband is released from prison and is tasked with pulling off a snatch-and-grab for a gang back on the inside. Making his second major mistake, the Driver offers his assistance, but the job inevitably goes south and he finds himself the target of a pair of vicious L.A. gangsters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks... yes, that Albert Brooks) who have no compunction about killing anyone and everyone -- even women and children -- to keep themselves out of jail.
At this point, Drive erupts in an orgy of bloodshed that sees numerous lives snuffed out in exceptionally brutal ways. The sadism might be too much for some viewers to stomach and, to be honest, Refn does stage some of the deaths with a certain tittering, "now watch this" glee that recalls the worst examples of torture porn. (He's also guilty of belaboring a running visual metaphor tied into the old "Scorpion and the Frog" fable.) But the brutality also makes sense within the world of the film; because of the way the Driver and the rest of the men in his orbit have chosen to live, their decisions carry literally life-or-death consequences. Despite what the opening sequence suggests, it turns out that there's no such thing as the perfect getaway. Whether he knows it or not (and deep down he almost surely does) the Driver's road only leads him to one destination. The power and, yes, pleasure of the movie lies in watching him get there.
Check out Ryan Gosling's strangely awkward unscripted conversation with the director of Drive.
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