"Drive" certainly hits the ground running.
In the film's exquisitely paced and exhilarating opening sequence, a man known simply as the Driver cruises the streets of LA amongst a shimmering sea of city lights. From its first moments, the film establishes an almost ethereal harmony between the man, his vehicle and the nighttime cityscape he seems to float above. He's on his way to a heist; he's the getaway driver. Over the phone he explains to his anonymous cohorts, "If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place and I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes, I'm yours. I don't go in. I don't carry a gun. I drive." The sultry organ behind the voice over is Ryan Gosling's, and he delivers his lines so plainly and assertively, with his trademark Jersey cadence, that he takes on a mythical presence -- the grindhouse wheelman incarnate, cool as ice with black leather gloves and a toothpick pinched between his teeth. When the action starts, for a few brief minutes, "Drive" actually evokes the overwhelming thrill of the road; it makes the roar of the engine, the screech of the tires and the whoosh of the wind more than palpable -- it makes them exalting.
And that's just the point; behind the wheel the Driver is a god amongst mere mortals. In these early scenes, the movie captures something unique: in his box of medal and glass the character conveys a juxtaposition of wistful seclusion and buoyant deliverance; he's cut off from the world in his car and also completely at home in it. With a peddle at his feet and a wheel in his hand, he's as natural as a duck in water. When we learn that his day job is crashing deathproof Jalopies for Hollywood movies, the stage becomes set for something very special.
Alas, the movie constructed around the hero is hardly worthy of him. "Drive" gets its dramatic momentum from the friendship between the Driver and his kindly neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Trouble is, Irene's husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is an ex-con who owes money to gangsters. They beat him with lead pipes, threaten his family and than order him to rob a pawn shop. The Driver -- feeling protective of his newfound amigos -- agrees to drive the getaway car. Seems simple enough. But the money they steal belongs to a duo of mob underbosses (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks), and it somehow connects back to an old formula 1 racer the Driver and his grease monkey chum, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), have just borrowed three-hundred G's to restore. As I bet you can guess, chaos ensues.
The plot looks on paper like a taut 70's crime thriller about a callous crook finding his humanity in the company of the saintly young mother next door. Had the film embraced some of those roots, it might have paid off. Instead, it becomes clear rather quickly that the director (Nicholas Winding Refn) is not a genre extraordinaire, but an amateur still struggling to define his method. The film is a pastiche with influences ranging from noir to Martin Scorsese ultra-violence (and mobster babbling) to Antonioni minimalism and Bresson terseness. The result is an over-stylized wannabe art house endeavor as opposed to the trashy-but-meaningful kind of thrill-ride the movie ought to be. The director is clearly attempting to sell pulp as high art, but he tries too hard and he gives us little more than film-school smugness.
There were times when I thought Refn was coddling his inner pulp-peddler, but his aesthetic is so pretentious -- with so many deep compositions, slow-mo tracking shots, and uber-contrasty lighting setups -- that it can't register as anything other than deadly serious.
It's a shame too because the actors in this movie are so good. Gosling ("Blue Valentine" and "Half Nelson") has proven over the last few years that he can do just about anything. As the Driver he recalls Steve McQueen aplomb and George Clooney's leading man veiled vulnerability. Carey Mulligan -- who I adore -- isn't asked to do much more than look pretty and susceptible in perpetual half-light, and she even does that well. She's a most delectable femme fatale (if only she'd been a little more fatale). But unfortunately their relationship is developed in moments of sustained silence that conjured more memories of "The American's" cold ennui than Bresson's "Pickpocket". Wounded souls connecting in wordless, brooding ways is all well and good, but there is no substitute for actual chemistry. "Drive" doesn't bother to generate any; it's more interested in "respectable" existentialism.
"Drive" has the ability to blaze its engines when it wants to. That's why I can safely say: there is more to come from Nicholas Winding Refn. However, this is the old case of style and ambition getting in the way of effective storytelling. "Drive" prefers to talk up its engine size with artsy gimmicks. The smell of burning rubber can speak for itself.