Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
(2011, R, 100 min)

Drive does not star Vin Diesel or Paul Walker or gratuitous bikini models dancing in party scenes, as at least one viewer was disappointed to discover. The ads for the film were a bit misleading, suggesting a high-octane chase movie in order to get people into the theater – a similar marketing tactic rankled many viewers of George Clooney‘s The American last year – but having now seen the film, I don’t think the ads were patently dishonest; if this film represents an outrage for not being The Fast and the Furious, I think it says more about the viewer than the film.

Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival – which should have been your first hint about the film’s aesthetic leanings – and the film is nothing if not an exercise in style, often to the point of self-consciousness: a lot of intense slow-motion photography, an ’80s-retro soundtrack, and an almost fetishistic attention to close-up violence. The problem comes when there’s more style than story, as in the second half, when the lean plot setup – something about the theft of a bag of money and an attempt to return it (I’ve written about bag-of-money movies before) – is paid off. There’s nothing especially interesting, in and of itself, about the criminal enterprises described in the film, and there’s only so much that creative lighting, camerawork, and music cues can do to enhance it.

However, as a character study it is very effective. Ryan Gosling plays a man known only as “Driver.” He’s introduced to us in an excellent getaway scene not of high speeds and screeching tires but of quietly tense evasions. The character is much the same, a strong-and-silent Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman for criminals, and he’s so taciturn you might mistake him for shy, but it’s less shyness than caution. He sizes up people and situations, assessing danger, and is capable of striking violently if he needs to. His only close relationship is with a garage mechanic (Bryan Cranston) who took him under his wing, until he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan) a young mother whose husband (Oscar Isaac) is about to be released from prison and owes money to very bad people.

What makes Gosling’s performance so effective is how he fills the many silences with thought and feeling. His scenes with Mulligan are hopeful, even innocent; with her he tries on a life of peaceful domesticity, so when that way of life is threatened his instinct is to protect it, even if he can’t share it. He’s a violent man with reserves of warmth, longing, and loneliness, and at times he’s so distant and internal he’s like a ghost. He risks everything to protect Irene, and he doesn’t even have a name.