"There's a hundred thousand streets in this city."
The black screen fades into a shot of a marked-up map of downtown Los Angeles. Standing before the window, a man in an enviable white racing jacket embroidered with a yellow scorpion speaks calmly into the phone. A flashing pink light punctuates the darkness outside the window, where his reflection is blurred by double pane glass. As he ends the call, the muted television silently announces Toronto is beating the Lakers at halftime. He picks up an enormous duffel bag and sets off into the night. A quiet beat emerges, barely distinguishable in the background. I'm intrigued.
The cinematography in the next scene is so beautifully suited to the plot, I can't help thinking Nicholas Winding Refn directed the film just so he could set up this one shot. From the passenger seat foot well, a slightly canted low-angle shot shows the character dubbed "Driver" as the light from a streetlamp slowly illuminates, then conceals his beautiful gaze out the windshield. By this point, I would be fine with the entire film taking place inside cars just to see what new shots the director and cinematographer came up with. I'm engaged.
After an appearance by Bryan Cranston, a near-botched armed robbery getaway and some expert use of headlights as light sources comes a car chase that is tenser, yet more subdued than any I've ever seen. Driver masterfully evades the police on three separate occasions, but each scene of evasion involves only one police vehicle at a time (a car, a helicopter, another car). Swapping impossible cast-of-thousands action sequences for improbable feats by a single skilled driver, the scene constructs a nuanced chase more focused on the movements of Driver's face than of his car. I'm enthralled.
A radio sportscast of the Laker game, voiceovers from the police dispatch unit and that old dependable backbeat comprise the three-part soundtrack during the chase. Each strain could correspond to a different aspect of Driver: Cautious and informed, he attends to the police radio for each new development in the search for his car; talented and capable, he executes every turn to sportscasters' praise and cheers from the game; ambitious and confident, he completes the job, supported all the while by the steady backbeat. I'm obsessed.
What do I know about Driver by the film's ten minute mark? First off, his eyes are pretty uneven, so I'm predisposed to like him because my eyes are pretty uneven, too. He is certainly stellar behind the wheel. He has a great jacket. He also has the status and the gall to enforce a strict schedule on a disorganized underworld. He speaks with threatening conviction to criminal clients; armed robbers trust him with the success of their heist and the possibility of their incarceration; he saunters coolly past the policemen who are following the car he's just abandoned. But Driver's power and mystique are not what make this opening quite so striking. It is something far simpler, requiring neither analysis nor a cinematic frame of reference, that led me to watch the first ten minutes a full four times before letting the movie play through: It is just so damn cool. Many great movies don't have even a hint of that precious, elusive cool factor.
So watch Drive as soon as you possibly can. Film buffs and Ryan Gosling enthusiasts alike, rejoice!
~ Natasha Hirschfeld