If they allowed 13-year-old boys into R-rated movies (officially), Ryan Gosling's character in Drive would be a middle-school hero by the end of the first reel. As director Nicolas Winding Refn's new film unspools, Gosling's unnamed Hollywood stuntman/after-hours wheelman picks up a hot car and a couple of heist men, waits while they pull a job, and then coolly helps them elude police in one of the most deft and pulse-pounding action sequences you'll see onscreen all year. But when the unnamed driver throws his bag on the bed in a new apartment that night, he doesn't even turn on the light—it's just another nondescript flop—telegraphing to grown-ups the downsides of being so cool, so untouchable.
And that's Drive all over. On the surface, it rolls like an homage to '80s neon noir, a cross between early Michael Mann and Grand Theft Auto from the hot-pink credits font on down to Cliff Martinez' throbbing Euro-disco-ish score. Just under that surface, it's a story of desperation and thwarted desires and tough decisions with a surprising emotional heft to it.
At the outset, the driver has no friends, no human connection really, other than broken-down mechanic Shannon (Breaking Bad's Brian Cranston), who hooks him with jobs and cars. But Shannon's trying to hook him up with more—a legit racing career—via Bernie Rose (a phenomenal Albert Brooks), a former producer of Michael Mann-like movies who has devolved into a minor crime boss. (Brooks' character even looks like Mann.) The driver seems as though he could take or leave success on the track. The only thing that seems to stir any interest at all is his cute, sweet new neighbor Irene (An Education's Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). A little humanity begins to peek through the driver's impassive shell.
Unfortunately, Irene is still married to petty-criminal shithead Standard (Oscar Isaac), fresh out of prison. Wanting to help Irene, the driver tries to help Standard, and thus runs afoul of Bernie. And the more he tries to get himself out of the situation and back into his self-contained slipstream, the deeper he sinks, dragging Irene with him. There's plenty of noir-style double-crossing and some eye-opening violence (two words: claw hammer), but also a tender, yet chaste romance. Everything eventually boils down to a triangle, with the driver doing what he must to protect Irene and Bernie doing what he must to protect his own skin, and it's an emotional triangle as much as the plot variety.
Screenwriter Hossein Amini's fleet plotting and Refn's adroit action sequences keep things racing along, and finely shaded characters emerge from beautiful work by Mulligan, Brooks, and Gosling, elevating Drive above the dimbulb action most multiplex audiences have come to tolerate and accept. Indeed, the fact that Refn (cult faves Pusher, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising) is able to pivot all this on a nearly nonverbal man without a past speaks to his talent, and to Gosling's. While the actor barely does anything that you'll notice, by the time he's carrying a sleeping Benicio after a big day out, you're ready to buy a possible transformation. Yet Refn reveals in a head-spinning scene set in an elevator that the driver may be gallant but he's no white knight. And as he hurtles toward a showdown with Bernie, you kind of hate to see either of them lose, because you've come to like Bernie, maybe even more than you like the driver. But this movie is set in the L.A. of body shops and grotty apartments and shabby pizza parlors, not the Hollywood of happily ever after. They can't both win.
In a way, Drive is about the cost of being a badass, and if Refn isn't quite as eloquent on the topic as Mann has been in some of his films, he's every bit as entertaining. There are some maladroit bits here (Ron Perlman chews grimy scenery as a crass hood, and the script hands Cranston lines like "This kid is special"), but the director's crafted an instant classic worthy of both the art house and Saturdays on TNT.