The Driver (Ryan Gosling) stares out his apartment window, looking at Los Angeles, as he talks to someone on his cellphone. He explains that he will be in their employ for exactly 5 minutes, no more and no less. In those 5 minutes, he will look the other way, no matter the content. In the background, an NBA basketball game taking place at the Staples Center plays on the TV. He tells them never to call him again.
The Driver arrives at the garage. Shannon (Bryan Cranston) excitedly shows the Driver to the car he requested - a late model Chevy Impala: the most common car in LA. He's made a few tweaks under the hood to make it faster. The Driver takes the Impala and heads to an office park in an industrial area. Outside the business park, on the sidewalk, are two men in ski masks carrying guns. The driver parks his car across the street, nods to the two men, and puts five minutes on his watch. He listens to the police frequency on his scanner. The two men storm the building. Gun shots follow, and alarms blare. The two men make their way out to the Impala's open doors and flee. The Driver expertly avoids numerous police cruisers, and after a few brief chases, he arrives at the Staples Center. He sheds his silver jacket, embroidered with a golden scorpion, and ditches the car and gunmen. The Driver easily avoids police by blending in with the post-game crowd.
He arrives home, at his apartment complex, and shares a brief, quiet elevator ride with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan). He walks into his apartment, and barely crosses the threshold before closing the door and heading back to his car. The following day, The Driver and Shannon are on a movie set. The Driver dons an LAPD uniform and a latex mask made to look like the star of the film. Shannon explains that the director at the last minute requested a car-flip for $500. The Driver does it easily and without injury. After the shoot, he heads to the grocery store where he sees Irene and her son shopping. He avoids contact with them and hurriedly completes his purchase. In the parking lot, he sees that their car won't start. He gives them a ride home and helps her in with their groceries. She asks what he does for a living, and he says he's a part time stunt-driver, and a part-time mechanic at Shannon's shop.
Shannon has a lunch meeting with former movie producer Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks). They oddly eat take-out chinese food in a pizza joint. Shannon proposes to Bernie that he loan him $400K to buy a used stock car that the Driver will drive in NASCAR races. The Driver is unbeatable and is a good investment. During their conversation wise-guy Nino (Ron Perlman), the owner of the pizza place, enters and berates Shannon.
The following day the Driver is working at Shannon's garage when Irene and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos) arrive with her car on a flat-bed. Shannon playfully teases the Driver for having a "girlfriend." He fibs to Irene regarding the state of her car, giving the Driver an excuse to drive her and her son home. The Driver finishes his work, and they all get into his car. The Driver takes them on a joy ride through the LA river basin and then to a small stream where they skip stones and bond. Over a few days, the three become fast friends, and the Driver and Irene share an unspoken attraction for one another.
The Driver and Shannon race an old stock car around a race track while Bernie watches from the stands. Bernie, impressed by the Driver, asks to meet him. The Driver exits the race car and reluctantly shakes hands with Bernie. Bernie agrees to front the cash to buy the car, to Shannon's delight. The Driver eats pie at a diner. A scruffy customer from across the room eats and then corners the Driver. He explains that a year earlier he hired the Driver for a job in Palm Springs, and that he has another job coming up. Incensed, the Driver orders the man to leave and to never contact him again.
Irene receives a phone call from her lawyer. Her husband, who has spent the last few years in jail, will be released in the morning. The following night, Irene and Benicio welcome back Standard (Oscar Isaac) with a big party. The Driver, though invited, chooses to stay in his apartment. The Driver leaves and finds Irene sitting in the hallway, exhausted. The two flirt, until Standard intrudes in the conversation. He greets the Driver with his words, but implies that he should stay away from his wife and kid.
Bernie and Nino visit Shannon's garage, while the Driver works on a car in a bay. Bernie admires the stock car while Nino criticizes it, much to Shannon's chagrin. Bernie corners the Driver and tells him how he and Shannon met. Back in the 80's Bernie produced a bunch of crappy action movies and Shannon was a stunt driver. Shannon made some shady deals with loan sharks, resulting in a shattered pelvis which still cripples Shannon to this day.
The Driver returns to his apartment complex and sees two thugs carrying bats walking through the parking garage. The Driver finds Standard slumped in a corner, beaten and bloodied, all while telling Benicio to keep the situation secret from his mom. The Driver takes them both upstairs and helps Standard clean himself up. After a day or two, Standard confesses what happened. When Standard was in prison, he was offered, and received $2,000 worth of protection from other inmates. Every day since he left prison the amount has been doubling, and he now owes "Cook" (James Biberi) $20,000. In the parking garage, he was offered the opportunity to cancel his debt by running a job for Cook. Cook wants him to rob a pawn shop, but Standard won't risk going back to prison and refuses. For this reason, Standard was savagely beaten. To make matters worse, Benicio produces a bullet, and explains to the Driver that the two thugs gave it to him as a warning. If Standard doesn't do the job, Irene and Benicio will die too. The Driver takes the bullet.
The Driver goes to Cook and offers his services to him, and gives him the same speech as before: 5 minutes, no more no less, no guns, etc. Cook toys with the Driver but eventually concedes to his involvement. He introduces him to Blanche (Christina Hendricks). Blanche will accompany Standard and the Driver on the heist as insurance that they don't run off with the money. The Driver steals a late-model black Mustang and the three arrive at the pawn shop. The Driver sets his watch, as Standard and Blanche make their way inside, guns drawn. A silver Chrysler 300 pulls into the lot. Moments later Blanche calmly exits carrying a large duffel bag stuffed with cash. Standard follows shortly thereafter just as gunshots ring from the inside of the shop. Standard is first wounded in the neck and then shot in the back multiple times before dying in a slump on the ground. The Driver and Blanche escape from the parking lot and are pursued by the Chrysler. They trade paint at high speeds, and the Driver manages to force the Chrysler off the road. The Driver and Blanche find a hotel room and hide out while they watch the news. The news report states, per the pawn shop owner's testimony, that Standard acted alone and that no money was stolen. Confused and angry the Driver slaps Blanche and orders her to tell him about Cook. She tearfully tells him where he works (a strip club) and makes her way into the bathroom to clean herself up. Her cellphone suddenly vibrates and the Driver notices a dark figure lurking outside the window. Through the bathroom window, another man raises a shotgun and shoots Blanche in the head, point-blank, killing her. The Driver barricades the front door and kills the man in the bathroom before shooting the second man with his partner's shotgun. He calls Irene and Benicio answers, who tells him that his mom is busy talking to the police.
The Driver drives to Cook's strip club. He makes his way to the dressing room, hammer in hand, and upon meeting Cook he repeatedly bashes his hand with the hammer. He throws Cook on the ground and places Benicio's bullet to his forehead. He threatens to hammer the bullet into his head. Cook concedes and tells one of his girls to call the Boss - Nino. The Driver takes the cellphone and has a brief conversation with Nino. The Driver will turn over the duffel bag full of money if Nino agrees to leave him, Irene and Benicio alone. Nino laughs at the Driver's poor negotiation skills but tells him that he agrees. Nino hangs up and tells one of his thugs to go find the Driver.
The Driver returns to his apartment where he finds Irene in a state of shock. He confesses his involvement in the heist that resulted in Standard's death. She slaps him and heads to the elevator. The Driver follows her into the elevator as the doors part. Inside Nino's thug waits. The three calmly stand in the elevator. The Driver looks inside the thug's jacket at the butt of his gun. The Driver carefully pushes Irene behind him, turns around and kisses her passionately. He then swiftly knocks the thug down, disarms him, and stomps on his head until it pops open. Irene looks on, shocked, and the two part ways.
Back at Nino's pizzeria, Bernie and Nino watch Cook eat. Cook's arm is fractured in multiple places, and his face is messed up. Bernie pleads with Nino to understand why Nino set a hit-man on the Driver and his girlfriend. Nino explains that he ordered the Pawn shop job because the owner has connections to the East Coast mob, and the mob was stashing a million dollars there for the sake of future expansion. The mob always disrespected Nino because he was a Jew and this was the opportunity to both steal from them and start his own crew. The plan was that Standard, Blanche and the Driver were supposed to be killed by his men, eliminating any connection to him. The Driver is a liability to everybody. Bernie angrily takes a fork and stabs Cook in the eye before repeatedly slicing open his throat with a butcher knife. Bernie tells Nino that they both have to get their hands dirty. Bernie will take care of Shannon, and Nino will take care of the Driver.
Shannon returns to his garage, where he finds Bernie waiting for him. Bernie asks where the Driver is, and Shannon lies, telling him that he fled the country. Bernie notices that Shannon's bags are packed and goes to shake his hand. Shannon accepts the gesture, and Bernie produces a razor with his free hand and slashes Shannon's forearm, wrist-to-elbow, down to the bone. He lays Shannon down and tells him that his death will be painless. Bernie returns home, cleans the razor, and waits for Nino to fulfill his end of the deal.
The Driver arrives at Shannon's shop and finds the deceased Shannon sitting in a pool of his own blood. Angry, the Driver takes the money, puts it in his car, and drives to the movie set. He steals the latex mask and drives to Nino's pizzeria. He dons the mask, walks up to the front door, and sees a party happening inside. The Driver returns to his car and waits. Nino exits and drunkenly piles into his towncar. The Driver follows them up to the PCH and intentionally rear-ends them before driving off. The towncar stops on the shoulder, at the edge of a cliff over-looking the beach. The towncar's driver checks the damage and gets back in the car just as the Driver's headlights blind Nino. The Driver T-bones the towncar, sending it tumbling over the thirty-foot cliff, and watches it roll onto the beach below. The battered Nino crawls out of the wreckage and sees the masked Driver over-looking the wreck. The driver descends the cliff face and follows Nino into the water. He forces Nino's head below the water, drowning him.
The Driver calls Bernie and tells him that he doesn't want the money. He just wants Irene, Benicio, and himself to be left alone. Bernie refuses to talk specifically over the phone, telling the Driver instead to meet him at a Chinese restaurant to discuss the arrangements. The Driver phones Irene and apologizes for his involvement in Standard's death and thanks her for the greatest time of his life. The Driver arrives at the Chinese restaurant and sits down at a table across from Bernie. Bernie explains that Irene and Benicio are safe. There is nothing to lead anything back to them, however, the Driver has made many enemies and cannot be simply forgiven for what he's done. Bernie asks where the money is, and the Driver takes him out to the parking lot. He opens the trunk of his car and drops the duffel bag onto the pavement. Bernie stabs the driver in the stomach with a concealed blade, and the Driver does the same to him. The Driver overpowers Bernie, and slowly kills him. The Driver clutches the wound in his abdomen and gets into his car, leaving the dead Bernie and open bag of cash on the pavement. He drives off into inner Los Angeles. Irene listens to the Driver's message.
The Driver keeps driving. His fate is unknown.
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