Like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, Ryan Gosling is simply known as the Driver in "Drive." Actually, he's barely even known as that, because the few people he comes into contact with don't really call him anything.
He's a stoic loner who does exactly what the title suggests. By day, he's a stunt driver, flipping cop cars for Hollywood productions. By night, he evades the police as a getaway driver for armed robberies, as he does in the film's tense, nearly wordless opening sequence.
No identity, no backstory. The Driver simply exists, moving from one job to the next without making any pesky emotional attachments.
That he is such a cipher might seem frustrating, but Gosling's masculine, minimalist approach makes him mysteriously compelling. Yes, there's the fact that he's gorgeous. But he also does so much with just a subtle glance, by just holding a moment a beat or two longer than you might expect. He's defined not so much by who he is, but rather by what he does - how he responds in an increasingly dangerous series of confrontations.
His demeanor is the perfect fit for the overall approach from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn ("Bronson"); cool and detached, "Drive" feels like an homage to early Michael Mann. It oozes sleek '80s style, from its hot-pink titles to its electronic soundtrack to the silk racing jacket with a scorpion on the back that the Driver wears everywhere. Its neo-noir vision of contemporary Los Angeles is an anonymous sprawl of mini malls and Chinese food restaurants, run-down garages and cheap apartments, where most people are bad and the ones who are good are screwed. Film critics like to use the word "dystopian" at times like this. It's appropriate.
But then Refn punctuates his dreamlike, almost hypnotic pacing with sudden, bloody blasts of violence. You're lulled in by the quiet seaminess of it all, and then bam - someone gets a fork in the eye. It's the kind of brutality that's so quick, creative and extreme, it'll provoke bursts of nervous laughter. You couldn't possibly have seen that, right? Everything's going to be OK, right?
Even the Driver doesn't really want any trouble. He wants to get in, get out and be on his way. Once trouble finds him, though, he follows his own rigid code of honor, as so many reticent bad-asses are wont to do.
He gets involved with his neighbor down the hall, Irene (Carey Mulligan), a sweet, beautiful young woman with a sweet, beautiful young son. Then the kid's father (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison, and the Driver gets dragged into a scheme to help steal $1 million from a pawn shop to pay back his old debts. But Mulligan, with her effortlessly sweet presence, seems miscast here; she simply isn't damaged enough. Similarly, Christina Hendricks goes to waste in just a couple of scenes as a mob moll who has the misfortune of going along for the ride on the big heist.
But then "Drive" offers some serious character actors in big, showy supporting performances, which offers the same sort of appealing, startling contrast as the film's violent streak. Bryan Cranston plays a garage owner and father figure to the Driver; Ron Perlman is a volatile gangster who operates out of a drab pizza parlor; and best of all is Albert Brooks, functioning smoothly against type as a former movie producer who's now a player in this shadowy underworld of cars and cash.
Thinking back, there isn't really all that much driving in "Drive" - a couple of chase scenes here and there, staged efficiently, thrillingly. It's more about the questionable choices that drive people - and, ultimately, the ones that drive them away.
"Drive," a FilmDistrict release, is rated R for strong, brutal, bloody violence, language and some nudity. Running time: 100 minutes.