Looking at the trailers, you could be forgiven for thinking Drive is some kind of neon retro-styled entry into the Fast & Furious stable of motor movies. Actually, its basic plot – hotshot driver is drawn into protecting damsel in distress - is as slight and conventional as any of those movies, but its plot is the least crucial element in a stimulatingly amoral cocktail mixing a great central performance, great script and great direction.
Ryan Gosling is perfect as the Driver, an enigmatic figure whose corn-fed good-looks stand in delicious contrast to his watchful wariness. It would have been so easy to cast a scarred, macho sort here: the type of dude who does bad stuff in a bad world, confident in his violent self-righteousness. This was a smarter way to go. Gosling doesn’t fight his looks here; he uses his appearance to play with the tension between what’s on the surface and what’s underneath, creating a character whose sunny laugh glitters on the surface of the murkier depths apparent in darker moods. Depths? Maybe not. Dive in, you’ll break your neck. Murky shallows, then. His gaze is of the thousand yard variety, his superficially easygoing human interactions occluded by a sense of alienation. When he plays at being an avenging angel, you don’t quite buy it. Much like when he drives around the city at night, it’s more that he’s playing at trying to feel something in the darkness. He's an oddly childlike superhero who requires that evil exist, or what would he be for?
Despite Gosling's performance, British scriptwriter Hossein Amini’s piquant adaptation of author James Sallis’s neo-noirish thiller could have easily fallen flat without a director capable of successfully marrying its exploitation trash tropes with engagingly poppy art-house aesthetics. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy, mystic Viking travelogue Valhalla Rising and fictionalised pop-crime biopic Bronson certainly qualify, and it was Gosling - who also produced the film - who brought the Danish director on board. Good decision: the result deservedly took Best Director at Cannes 2011.
The only bum note is perhaps casting Carey Mulligan in a role where she has barely anything to do. For a character that’s surely an intentionally insipid helpless cipher, it would have been a bolder move to enlist an actress of less prestige, underscoring how much her presence as The Innocence That Must Be Defended is simply a fig-leaf enabling the can't-look-away carnage that follows.