The Driver drives for hire. He has no other name, and no other life. When we first see him, he's the wheelman for a getaway car, who runs from police pursuit not only by using sheer speed and muscle, but by coolly exploiting the street terrain and outsmarting his pursuers. By day, he is a stunt driver for action movies. The two jobs represent no conflict for him: He drives.
As played by Ryan Gosling, he is in the tradition of two iconic heroes of the 1960s: Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name and Alain Delon in "Le Samourai." He has no family, no history and seemingly few emotions. Whatever happened to him drove any personality deep beneath the surface. He is an existential hero, I suppose, defined entirely by his behavior.
That would qualify him as the hero of a mindless action picture, all CGI and crashes and mayhem. "Drive" is more of an elegant exercise in style, and its emotions may be hidden but they run deep. Sometimes a movie will make a greater impact by not trying too hard. The enigma of the driver is surrounded by a rich gallery of supporting actors who are clear about their hopes and fears, and who have either reached an accommodation with the Driver, or not. Here is still another illustration of the old Hollywood noir principle that a movie lives its life not through its hero, but within its shadows.
The Driver lives somewhere (somehow that's improbable, since we expect him to descend full-blown into the story). His neighbor is Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, that template of vulnerability. She has a young son, Benecio (Kaden Leos), who seems to stir the Driver's affection, although he isn't the effusive type. They grow warm, but in a week, her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison. Against our expectations, Standard isn't jealous or hostile about the new neighbor, but sizes him up, sees a professional and quickly pitches a $1 million heist idea. That will provide the engine for the rest of the story, and as Irene and Benecio are endangered, the Driver reveals deep feelings and loyalties indeed, and undergoes enormous risk at little necessary benefit to himself.
The film by the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn ("Bronson"), based on a novel by James Sallis, peoples its story with characters who bring lifetimes onto the screen, in contrast to the Driver, who brings as little as possible. Ron Perlman seems to be a big-time operator working out of a small-time front, a pizzeria in a strip mall. Albert Brooks, not the slightest bit funny, plays a producer of the kinds of B movies the Driver does stunt driving for — and also has a sideline in crime. These people are ruthless.
More benign is Bryan Cranston, as the kind of man you know the Driver must have behind him, a genius at auto repairs, restoration and supercharging.
I mentioned CGI earlier. "Drive" seems to have little of it. Most of the stunt driving looks real to me, with cars of weight and heft, rather than animated impossible fantasies. The entire film, in fact, seems much more real than the usual action-crime-chase concoctions we've grown tired of. Here is a movie with respect for writing, acting and craft. It has respect for knowledgable moviegoers. There were moments when I was reminded of "Bullitt," which was so much better than the films it inspired. The key thing you want to feel, during a chase scene, is involvement in the purpose of the chase. You have to care. Too often we're simply witnessing technology.
Maybe there was another reason I thought of "Bullitt." Ryan Gosling is a charismatic actor, as Steve McQueen was. He embodies presence and sincerity. Ever since his chilling young Jewish neo-Nazi in "The Believer" (2001), he has shown a gift for finding arresting, powerful characters. An actor who can fall in love with a love doll and make us believe it, as he did in "Lars and the Real Girl" (2007), can achieve just about anything. "Drive" looks like one kind of movie in the ads, and it is that kind of movie. It is also a rebuke to most of the movies it looks like.
Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is an LA pulp thriller, very brutal, very slick. It arrives here on an eddy of editorial hype; there is hardly a male pundit or columnist in Britain under 70 who hasn't declared a simpering man-crush on its star, Ryan Gosling, playing the permafrost-cool hero with no name. He's a Hollywood stunt driver with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, wearing a sleek bomber jacket with a scorpion on the back. Secretly, he also works for scary criminals as a wheelman, a getaway specialist; he gets top dollar, because he's the very best. With no fear, he can drive at terrifying speeds with extraordinary manoeuvrability; he has a sixth sense for cop cars and police helicopters. However, he has one super-special rule that the robbers must agree to, but which makes zero narrative sense. More of that in a moment.
Drive is a good film with great visual flair, in the style of Elmore Leonard or Quentin Tarantino, and with a little of their natural gruesome gaiety and gallows humour. Gosling has charisma and presence, although his facial expression is often set to "sardonic". Yet I can't quite join in the widespread critical enthusiasm that has greeted this film, and on the two times I've seen it, I couldn't join in the nervous shrieks of audience laughter that its ultra-violence provokes.
The idea is that Gosling's impassive driver gets his Hollywood stunt gigs and maybe also his criminal engagements through a garage owner, a cheerful crook called Shannon (Bryan Cranston) with mob connections. Gosling's life looks as if it will be turned around when he falls quietly in love with his next-door neighbour Irene, played with dignity and tenderness by Carey Mulligan. She's a single mom with a little boy who likes Gosling: her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is an incompetent crook now in jail, and it is evidently Gosling's tough, unspoken decency that keeps this relationship platonic. He is, moreover, joining a legit business, a speed-racing show Shannon is setting up with his mobster buddies Bernie and Nino – terrific performances from Albert Brooks (a rare bad-guy part) and Ron Perlman. But then Irene's man gets out of the joint, still mixed up in rough stuff, and just for Irene's sake, Gosling does one last driving job on his behalf, which of course goes horribly wrong.
Here is where is this tense, taut drama takes a lurching left-turn into ultra-violence and chaos. Gosling's driver had until this moment seemed like a basically sympathetic, romantic guy – involved in crime of course, but who made a point of not carrying a gun. Now the catastrophe of this last job seems to unlock a psychopathic capacity for extreme brutality. Is this a facet of his personality? Or just a style accessory for the film in general? So many people in this film seem to have the same capacity, and often the violence rips holes in the plot, as well as the bodies. At one stage, somebody kills someone else while chillingly cooing reassurance, yet what he's after is more or less under his is nose, and it doesn't occur to him to look for it. At another stage, someone gets horrifyingly stomped to death in an incautious location, with the body airily undisposed of. A bit of a rash killing in this era of CSI and CCTV and door-to-door inquiries.
Then there is Gosling's rule, supposedly a mark of his hyper-strict professionalism. He will drive the robbers as brilliantly as they could ever wish. But only for five minutes. When the five minutes is up, no matter where they are, he parks and leaves them there. What on earth is the point of a jobsworth getaway driver who downs tools after five minutes? A getaway guy surely has to get the robbers to their pre-arranged safe house, no matter what. What do this movie's creators imagine a robbery involves? It's like having a cab driver who says he'll drive you really really fast in the direction of your house, but only for five minutes. The naivety and absurdity sit uncomfortably with all that super-cool violence.
That said, there are some great cameos with very nice Leonardesque lines. Christina Hendricks almost steals the picture as a mysterious woman called Blanche – suitably white-faced with terror at the awful fate she correctly suspects awaits her when the heist goes wrong. Hendricks brilliantly transmits pure, elemental fear. Brooks and Perlman have some crackling dialogue, especially Perlman who complains that east coast gangster bullies still pinch his cheeks as if he's a kid. "I'm 59 years old!" A world of humiliation and despair is cleverly contained in that. Drive is a movie with power but is still directionless; the acceleration is great, but the steering needs looking at.
• Read Peter Bradshaw's blog about this review and some of the comments it provoked.