In a humble and darkened apartment in downtown Los Angeles, an enigmatic gentleman specifies his gig as a getaway driver with some potential clients over the phone. This Driver (Ryan Gosling, whose character is never referred to by a proper name) says that while he will follow through in helping these guys carry out their criminal operation, there is one small but important stipulation. He will give them a five-minute window of time to hold up the place, perform the robbery and make their way back to his car. If they are unable to meet those requirements, they are no longer his problem.
Sounds a little bit like “The Transporter,” correct? A chauffeur who acts as an accomplice to a crime by getting the real offenders out of a would-be sticky situation? Anyways, the camera then cuts to the crime scene, a grimy, weathered and ominously unoccupied looking building that, I assume, holds a buttload of money inside. As the two men enter, Driver waits patiently in his ride, covertly listening to police interference through a small radio and solemnly watching the seconds pass on his wristwatch, which is fastened tightly on the steering wheel in front of him. One of the guys exits rather quickly, while the other soon follows. Before you know it, the quiet escape is on.
In the opening speech he gives to his customers over the phone, he mentions that L.A. has upwards of 1000 streets, and boy, he probably has experience with every single one of them. The “escape,” if you can call it that, is a simultaneously tense and dead silent trek through the city, where Driver has to occasionally lose police cars through sudden twists and turns.
You may notice that the dominating sound in this particular scene seems like something that would be the faint background noise permeating the frenetic mayhem in any other ball-to-the-wall action film: the police reporting back and forth to each other on the criminals’ progress. Not a single word is exchanged between the three people in the car. The guys in the back at one point are trembling at the thought of being discovered. That is not the case for Driver, who coolly breezes through the process as though he were jamming to Bob Marley on the interstate. He knows nothing can possibly go wrong when he is behind the wheel.
And so ends the tremendously inspired first seven-minutes of “Drive,” a film that I believe never again reaches that level of great filmmaking or subtle brilliance. Have you seen a film where approximately halfway through, you begin to ask what you’ve gotten yourself into? You may be able to relate to how I felt when in this film, a whole bunch of dissimilar genres collided with the force of two confrontational rhinoceroses charging at full speed into each other. Maybe it was the fact that I deliberately avoided movie trailers and TV ads for the film, but by the end, I had been thrown for so many loops that I felt like I was trapped in a narrative whose blueprint borrowed liberally from the tortuous street arrangements of downtown L.A.
Aside from moonlighting as a getaway driver, this guy works a few other car-related jobs throughout the week: he is a part-time stunt driver for a studio lot, he works in an auto garage owned by an older man named Shannon (Bryan Cranston) and he is approached to be a professional stock car driver after demonstrating his skills on the racetrack. Shannon is onboard to construct the racecar, but the investors for this possible venture are a couple of wealthy mobster business partners named Bernie Rose and Nino (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, respectively). These are the types of businessmen whose personalities instantly scream the word ‘shady’ into my mind.
Driver also starts a relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a married woman who lives in an apartment a few doors down with her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). The two hit it off from the moment he drives them home from the grocery store after their car breaks down. But they do not become too involved as her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) will be released from prison within the next couple weeks. When Standard does return to his home, there is another moderately effective scene where the husband meets Driver for the first time at a party celebrating his arrival. He does not act outwardly jealous or territorial of his woman by cussing him out, but you can tell from the look on his face that Driver’s presence in their lives is a little troubling to him.
Not long after, Driver finds Standard bloodied and beaten in an alley with a scared and confused Benicio recoiling in the corner. Standard tells him that the person responsible for his beating had come for a large cash settlement for the protection of his family. If he does not get the money soon by robbing a nearby shop, the man threatens to brutalize the rest of his family as punishment. Driver then feels obligated to assist Standard in his actions, if only to hold his family together.
And from there, what seemed almost like a stylish, restrained drama about a nameless hero quickly turns into an aggressively stylized and ultraviolent revenge picture that is one of the most puzzling experiences I have had in a while. Unfortunately, I do not mean that in a good way. I give it credit for going against the grain of typical blockbuster-type films and trying something different, but it is moments when technical exercises overshadow the film itself that throw me off completely. I mean, is there supposed to be some kind of irony in a scene where Gosling passionately kisses Mulligan’s character in an elevator and then spontaneously starts wailing away on an assassin, stomping his head into a bloody, syrupy pulp on the floor? Perhaps I just missed the point of it all.
To me, “Drive” is the kind of movie that is predominantly style with little to offer in terms of substance. The violence is just there for the heck of it, without any kind of visceral weight or purpose behind it. The story is as difficult as any other convoluted action picture. The script is consciously minimalist and leaves several spaces for the actors and actresses to just stare at each other blankly, awkwardly waiting for the next line of dialogue to be spoken. Honestly, I do not mean to sound like such a contrarion. But to me, this is an over-the-top action film trying to use visual finesse and tonal flair as a subterfuge to earn itself some extra points. Sorry guys, but you didn’t lure me in this time.