In Drive Ryan Gosling plays a getaway driver who adheres to a strict set of rules. "If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place" he tells a potential employer over the phone, "I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what," and we quickly see The Driver (for we never learn his name) putting his rules into practice. As the men who have hired him execute their heist, he places a wristwatch on the dashboard and we hear the tick-tick-tick of the seconds ebbing away. When the crooks finally jump back into the car carrying their loot, The Driver pulls away carefully, keeping his speed steady and avoiding any hasty moves that might draw attention to himself. Then he spots a police car.
This is a beautifully directed sequence and one that immediately hooks the viewer into Drive. Nicolas Winding Refn has a superb command of space and a sleek visual sense, and he ratchets up the tension with consummate skill. I could have easily watched a whole film consisting of this kind of cat-and-mouse action, but one of the surprising things about Drive – and there are plenty of surprises – is how little driving there actually is. Beyond that opening sequence, there's a terrific chase following a robbery gone wrong and a quiet romantic interlude in which The Driver takes his neighbour out for a spin, but much of the movie takes place outside cars, which is where some of the film's problems begin. Chief among Drive's issues is the central relationship that complicates The Driver's controlled, attachment-free life. It's meant to provide Refn's film with its emotional core, but I didn't buy it for a second.
It begins when The Driver meets and falls in love with his neighbour Irene (played by Carey Mulligan), who has a young son that she's currently raising alone as her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. When Standard is released and some thugs come after him for money, The Driver inexplicably agrees to assist him in a robbery to help pay off his debts. I say inexplicably because I never felt the kind of bond between Gosling and Mulligan that would encourage a man like The Driver to risk everything for this woman. Irene is a weak character and Mulligan is not the actress capable of imbuing her with the depth and spark required to make us believe in Gosling's sudden infatuation. Refn includes numerous shots of the pair gazing into each other's eyes in the hope that something will emerge from these silent encounters, but for me, the relationship between Irene and The Driver remained a hollow element at the film's centre.
In fact, Drive is much better when it focuses on the supporting players. As a crime boss, Albert Brooks is a menacing hoot and he shares a couple of hugely entertaining exchanges of dialogue with a scenery-chewing Ron Perlman. They're a pair of down and dirty crooks with little regard for loyalty and friendship when somebody becomes a problem. Bryan Cranston also excels as Shannon, the crippled mechanic who provides The Driver with his cars and his jobs; he's a loser with big dreams that you know he's never going to achieve. All of these characters are archetypes of the noir genre but Cranston, Brooks and Perlman invest them with an idiosyncratic personality and a real sense of life, something that I never felt Mulligan or Gosling managed to do (and poor Christina Hendricks barely gets a chance to do anything with her tiny role).
You have to wonder how interested Refn really is in the human element of Drive. He seems so much more at home with the retro, neon aesthetic and the sudden bursts of (frankly rather off-putting) ultra-violence. It's impossible to deny that Drive is gorgeously put together, and on a scene-by-scene basis it would be regarded as one of the films of the year, but while style can be its own reward, these stunning individual moments don't cohere into anything that satisfies overall and it's hard to define what the point of the film is, exactly. There are pleasures to be had here, but for long stretches of the movie I just wanted the moody protagonist to get into his car and drive.