Silver Screen: Drive ****1/2

Silver Screen: Drive  ****1/2
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Silver Screen: Drive ****1/2
Bryan Miller

There haven’t been twenty minutes of any film this year as viscerally thrilling and compelling as the opening of Drive, the stylish, smart riff on the caper flick from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Ryan Gosling, nameless (as he remains for the rest of the movie), parks outside of a darkened building and relays his modus operandi to a client over the phone. He’ll get them and whatever they need moved from point A to point B in five minutes. What happens the minute before and the minute after are none of his concern, but for that five minutes, he’s your man, he gets the job done. It’s a clean, simple pitch, much like the sleek movie itself, a concept that can be relayed expediently, but that shines in the execution.

The Driver waits outside as two armed men flee the building and hop in the back. He starts the clock. The next five minutes take them across Los Angeles, fleeing cop cars, hiding from a police helicopter, and rocketing through the streets toward a getaway. Once in the clear, the Driver pilots his car toward home in a long opening-credit sequence in which the camera lingers on our inscrutable protagonist as he cuts through the city, in a sharp-looking sequence that plays like an action-movie riff on Taxi Driver.

The Driver works as a mechanic and a stunt driver for the movies by day and as an illicit wheelman by night, taking jobs from his washed-up petty-crook mentor Shannon (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston). Shannon takes his orders from a pair of mid-level crime bosses, the sly Bernie (Albert Brooks) and his hot-headed partner Nino (Ron Perlman). The Driver’s whole life is work and cars-- that is, until he meets beautiful single mom Irene (Carey Mulligan, having no trouble at all pulling off the “beautiful” part). But when he attempts to help her and her soon-to-be-paroled ex-husband out of a jam, he lands himself in a bad situation, caught up in a doublecross between competing criminal outfits who both view him as dispensable.

What sets Drive apart certainly isn’t the plot, which is at best a kind of timid Jim Thompson tale with fast cars, it’s Refn’s distinctive pacing and captivating aesthetic. Refn is clearly in control from moment one, as comfortable behind the camera as his antihero is behind the wheel. The film has the look of a modestly budgeted 1980s crime drama polished-- but not too polished. It’s dirty around the edges, threatening to tip into ironic winking but never quite capsizing. From the scratched-up synth-pop score (utterly grating to my ears, but effectively used without a doubt) to the Driver’s silver, scorpion-embossed jacket, Refn plays it straight.

Even more impressive is Refn’s ability to make the film both brisk and deliberate. He excises every unnecessary scene and line of dialogue, skipping quickly over meet-cutes and small talk, but he’s not hesitant to let shots run long. The car chases themselves are simultaneously kinetic and austere. Whereas, say, a Fast and Furious movie never lets the camera stop moving to give the illusion of momentum, Refn will pull back to catch a stunt in a wide shot, or be content to remain calm in the passenger seat while the Driver works his magic, letting the intensity play out on the actors’ faces. That works particularly well considering the caliber of the acting talent. Gosling is James Dean cool here, quiet and flinty and determined but with an underlying sensitivity, while the excellent Brooks brings an almost eerie warmth to a villain who could easily have been a stock heavy. Unfortunately, Mulligan has almost nothing to do, and bit player Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) is around far too briefly.

The early hype on Drive is that it may be the year’s best film so far. Let’s not get carried away here-- it’s most certainly no Tree of Life, but moreover, it’s not an unqualified success. For all its aesthetic charms, it’s also an incredibly cold movie, and the love story that sets the plot in motion is flat and unconvincing. Mulligan is lovely and charming enough to be a convincing reason for a guy to risk his life, but she’s not given a chance to let that happen. As such, Drive then becomes something more like a genre exercise than an affecting story-- but it sure is a damn good one.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.