When the title of "Drive" appears onscreen in florid magenta font, backed by a synth-heavy 80s soundtrack, a savvy audience member will realize that the film they're about to see has greater ambitions than being your average CGI-laden action movie. Oh, there are chases and wrecks, but they're secondary to the story of a nameless young mechanic (Ryan Gosling) who occasionally drives stunt cars for the movies and moonlights as a getaway driver. He says very little, but cuts a memorable figure in leather driving gloves and a white silk jacket with a gold scorpion stitched on the back. It's an outfit I suspect we'll be seeing duplicated this Halloween, and for many Halloweens to come.
Because this is the role I think Gosling is going to be remembered for. The Driver, as he's listed in the credits, has the makings of an icon. We first see him playing cat-and-mouse with the police in the run-down neighborhoods Los Angeles, a car town if there ever was one, comfortable in the persona of a coolly invincible wheelman who can do anything with the right car. He lives a solitary life, devoid of personal connections and ties to anything but the world of cars and driving. Many of his early scenes are spent in silence, existing only as a lone figure on the screen. And he seems perfectly content to be exploited by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who owns the auto shop that employs the Driver, and has the connections to arrange more dangerous under-the-table jobs.
Then, of course, a young woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan) comes into his life. She lives with her young son a few doors down from the Driver, and sometimes could use a hand with errands. But as soon as the two tentatively connect, Irene's absent husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), returns from prison. Standard is in trouble, owing the wrong people a bundle in protection money. Then there is a job, that becomes a job-gone-wrong, and the Driver ends up with a price on his head. Graphic, realistic, violence follows. Viewers may recoil at the sight of so much blood and gore, though the shots are brief and you don't actually see as much as you think you do. Director Nicholas Winding Refn, best known for the similarly brutal "Bronson," is not in the habit of using typically bloodless, action-movie violence.
Nor is Ryan Gosling playing your typical action movie hero. "Drive" hinges on Gosling's performance, which consists largely of physical action, or rather as some have noted, inaction. We know next to nothing about the character, not his name, his background, or his motives. There is little to go on but the implacable front he presents to the world, which is well served by Gosling's charisma. However, every so often that perfect facade slips, and that's where Gosling builds the heart of the performance, using the subtlest expressions to reveal the character's inner life. The romance between the Driver and Irene is played out almost entirely in quiet glances. In the action scenes, momentary hesitations and lingering looks hint that he's not as sure of himself as he wants us all to think he is.
The rest of the cast is just as impressive. Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston put their personal stamps on some common genre tropes. Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman nearly steal the show as Bernie and Nino, a pair of likeable West Coast mobsters who are utterly ruthless when it comes to taking care of business. Perlman is always great in this kind of part, but Brooks going against type was a great surprise. Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks, making a brief appearance as a thief in high heels, also hold their own in smaller, but vital roles. Any of these characters could have easily been caricatures, as they all fit certain types, but everyone gets little moments and little details that make them distinctive.
The same can be said of "Drive" itself. There have been plenty of car films and plenty of these lone wolf heroes. "Drive" references several of them. But the mood that Nicholas Winding Refn summons, with old 80s pop tunes playing over hypnotic driver's POV shots, is unique. Refn has shown again that he not only knows how to create memorable characters like Bronson and the Driver, but how to create the right cinematic environments to bring out their best and worst. By all means, go to the film for Gosling and Mulligan and the fast cars and the jarring violence. But stay for the languid Los Angeles atmosphere and the long, long silences. Stay for the ineffable moments of pure cool.