Directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive opens with a precredits sequence that was riveting on the big screen, and that loses nothing on DVD. Ryan Gosling plays a getaway driver whose skill and professional ethic are summed up in the terse instructions he leaves for his clients via disposable cell phone: You will have the benefit of my services for five minutes only. Anything that happens on either side of those five minutes, you’re on your own. And sure enough, in the opening vignette, Driver, as he’s known, demonstrates why five minutes are all he needs.
It’s night; two crooks pile into the back of his car with whatever they’ve just stolen, and Driver then plays a masterful game of cat and mouse with not just several LAPD squad cars but also a police helicopter through the streets of downtown L.A. The hoods in back sit holding their breath — as does the audience — as Driver, with fantastically precise timing, maneuvers behind a parked truck, hides under an overpass and even brazenly cruises right past a cop car. His most audacious stunt is to head straight for the Staples Center as a Clippers game is getting out, making it easier to ditch the car and slip away in the stream of people.
If you live in L.A., part of the pleasure of the sequence is that the filmmakers don’t seem to have cheated the locations. The locales look contiguous, and reflect how in downtown L.A., you can go from a derelict warehouse district to dense, overlit AEG Live hell within the space of a few blocks. Not a word is spoken in the car, not a shot is fired, and the suspense is spellbinding. It’s an inspired touch that we never find out who the thieves are, what they stole, or even what happens to them. And why should we? Anything that happens on either side of those five minutes, they’re on their own.
After that opener, Drive proceeds at a languid, “European” pace. The measured storytelling actually prompted a Michigan woman to sue Film District, the movie’s distributor, for misleading advertising — while the trailer might have promised a variant of The Fast and the Furious starring Ryan Gosling, the film itself is defiantly arthouse in its pacing. (A misleading preview or commercial, whoever heard of such a thing?)
But Refn has been carefully setting up the explosion of violence that marks the story’s turning point. Driver agrees, for gallant reasons, to be wheel man in a pawn shop heist, but the heist is a setup. It goes bad, naturally, leading to the movie’s real set piece:
Driver and his freaked-out accomplice Blanche (Christina Hendricks) hole up at a motel, and Driver realizes they’ve been tracked there — just seconds before two gunmen appear. Refn switches to slow motion, which in lesser hands might be a dreadful cliché. Here it helps push the moment to a hyperreal intensity, ratcheting up the sense of imminent doom, which gives way to full-blown disaster. Blanche gets her head blown off, with the brains flying out of her head filling the right side of the screen. (Refn likes his splatter.) The violence is horrific, yet, as in a Sam Peckinpah or Michael Mann shootout, impeccably staged. You recoil with revulsion at the same time you’re noting how effective the filmmaking is, like a nightmare that’s somehow deeply pleasurable.
Only Driver’s reflexes and ability to turn a curtain rod into an instrument of murder — more splatter — save him. Refn adds a final flourish to this bravura sequence when Driver shoots the second gunman, and we never see the guy get hit. Instead the camera stays on Driver as he blasts away and then retreats behind a doorframe, his face disappearing from sight in prolonged slow motion. The moment is pure indulgent style: when I first saw it in the theatre, I remember thinking, he’s going to hold this shot until Gosling disappears behind that doorframe, until all that’s left in the composition is negative space — and as the shot played out, it felt so right, so satisfying, perfect. Kudos to editor Matthew Newman; the timing here is exquisite.
The shot is a triumph of form, pure choreography, an actor moving through space on screen. Anyone could’ve cut away earlier; that wouldn’t have shown any imagination. Why does Refn make us watch this, instead of simply cutting away once the “action” of the scene is over? Because it looks cool, for one thing. (No small consideration, in this movie.) And because holding the shot gives the viewer a chance to catch his breath, to try to process the extravagant outburst of violence — just as Driver has to.
Most of what follows is in Drive is an acute letdown. The movie doesn’t so much build to a climax as it starts shutting down, becoming less smart and lively with each scene. Suddenly it feels like we’re getting neo-noir by the numbers, with no surprises.
As if to compensate for the script’s lack of inventiveness in the third act, Refn cranks up the violence. If the movie has struck a fiendish balance between arthouse and grindhouse for about 75 minutes, after that it lurches toward full-bore splatter. Refn seems happy to show us acts of graphic bloodletting that are presumably meant to be wickedly over the top. But in 2011 there’s nothing clever about ultraviolence onscreen, especially not when it’s applied so injudiciously. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Refn here that the audience has already seen literally innumerable acts of extreme violence in movies, and that not showing, or using the power of suggestion can be much more effective. Case in point, the earlier shootout at the motel: Not showing us the second gunman get blown away by Driver — now that’s some serious cinematic smarts.