He is a driver and only a driver. He has no name to the men he works for and not even to us. He's the guy behind the wheel who will be there if you tell him when and where. He's the getaway driver and a man defined by what he does. We're introduced to this driver -- with his steely blue eyes and gloved hands gripping the steering wheel -- during a job. He's cool and collected even during a vehicular game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities. It's a sequence wrought with tension and suspense and one of the most expertly handled car chases I've seen. Eyes fixated on the road and not ever on the faces of the criminals he carts around, the driver doesn't commit the act; he only gets those doing so from point A to point B. "I drive," he says.
Albert Brooks, who's not at all funny here, plays a nasty man of business named Bernie in "Drive" from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn ("Bronson," "Valhalla Rising"). His character is a producer for the type of B-movies that the driver does car stunts for, which is the driver's day job when he's not a driver for hire by night. Bernie describes the movies he used to produce in the 80s as action thrillers lauded by critics. Some critics even called them European. But he thought his movies were shit. As a self-knowing nod, he could be describing the very movie he's in -- minus the part about being shit.
The modern soundtrack recalls 80s synth with titles presented in a retro pink cursive font like something out of "Miami Vice." A sleek, subdued and sophisticated European sentiment permeates the mood. It's an action thriller for the art house crowd but in no way pretentious. "Drive" provides the perfect elements of a genre flick in high fashion emphasizing the master of craft. While putting the pedal to the metal, there's respect for acting and writing. It plays on commercialism while becoming an exact rebuttal to convention.
As the driver Ryan Gosling sustains an impenetrable and indiscernible calm that's unnerving. He has the severe cool of a young George Clooney, and here he seems to be channeling him in "Michael Clayton" form. He's wordless and expresses a wide expanse of inner-thought through a shift in the brow or a twinge of the mouth. A master of nuance, Gosling gives us a brilliant work of existentialism through moments of idling silence before this mysterious wheel man slams on the accelerator. He's a man who's been around cars most his life mentored by a fatherly figure, a mechanic named Shannon (Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad"). The driver lives in an apartment complex and becomes close with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan). She has a young son, Benecio (Kaden Leos), and a husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), who's in jail. The driver and Irene grow fond of each other, but Standard returns home within the week. Once there he's not jealous of the driver but instead finds opportunity. He's in trouble -- the kind of trouble the driver can deal with.
Filling in the blanks of back story are characters' expressions and subtleties. The film doesn't wear its emotions on its sleeve but they do run deep. The script by Hossein Amini is minimal in dialogue, so reading between the lines is essential and it works. The driver's loyalty to Irene's family is obvious as he accepts a job with little to no benefit to himself. It's a heist that goes horribly wrong with bloodshed aplenty namely from Christina Hendricks of "Mad Men" who plays a sexy accomplice. With the smooth purr of seduction "Drive" offers filmgoers, it is a gradual and moody escalation with hyper-violent and ultra-stylized eruptions that fuels this beast's engine. It's a simple parable of fast cars and dangerous deeds involving men not defined by what they say but, instead, by their actions -- no matter the blood stains left in their wake.