The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is economical of action when we see him at work. I found it easier to believe in him as an expert driver than if he had chattered and had his head on a swivel as in more whizz-bang car chases. Outside of the car he is equally reserved, using few words and leaving long pauses before speaking or acting. Perhaps this is why his decisions also seem so assured?
The Driver is introduced in a getaway job that immediately places the film’s action as more Michael Mann than Michael Bay, and establishes the Driver as a craftsman. He is a wheelman, stunt driver, and mechanic, all in association with his mentor-like boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston). We see him perform a driving stunt on a movie set, and the Driver seems invincible behind the wheel. The distinction between legal and illegal is fuzzy; work is work. The same seems true for Bernie (Albert Brooks), who claims a former career as movie producer and now a middling criminal boss. Shannon talks him into bankrolling a stock car venture for the Driver.
The scheme will not see fruition. The Driver meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and bonds with her young son Benecio (Kaden Leos). Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison; she and the Driver form a friendship that is suggestive but decorous. The Driver is honorable and restrained.
Upheaval arrives when Standard is released, but thankfully not because Standard is angered by the interloper. His jealousy is allowed to flicker, but he too is allowed to be honorable and accepting. This becomes crucial. Standard is beaten and his family threatened; if he does not work to steal money to repay arbitrary prison protection fees, Irene and Benecio will be targeted. The Driver, with no explicit prompting, negotiates the job with himself as wheelman in exchange for Standard’s debt to be considered repaid. In this way the mutual respect of the two men, through Irene, is the pivot on which the tragedy turns, as the “good” and simple heist goes wrong, and the consequences unfold.
But through it all the Driver consistently makes sensible choices (notwithstanding some of the vicious violence attached). We are told almost nothing about him in the film, yet he is permitted some open emotion that jars with the “anonymous stranger”. What is going through his head? Early on the long, watchful pauses seem detached, maybe affected cool. As the Driver becomes more and more helpless to inevitability and the pauses are stoic and damp-eyed I wondered if maybe he was uncertain of himself all along. He is presented as a classic loner but ultimately seems lonely.
“Drive” reminded me a bit of another lonely film in “Lost in Translation”. Some of the visuals parallel, especially the soft focus city-at-night scenes and the music was used in a way that felt similar. The tone of Irene’s relationship with the Driver mirrors that movie too: it is brief, profound and restrained, although of course the characters are very different. Carey Mulligan seems not to take a deep breath throughout, Irene never totally relaxed and eventually drained by grief.
The Driver remains an expert to the end, but cannot end reassured. His best abilities and best-available decisions cannot salvage much from the inevitable path of events. Gosling shows this vulnerability and frustration with understatement, which is more than enough after the extreme reservation of the first half. The exception to this understatement is followed by the most poignant moment in “Drive”. The Driver’s most passionate outburst, of desire and violence, comes in an elevator with Irene and a man presumably sent to hurt them. Afterwards, Irene, grieving and freshly shocked, backs away and says nothing as the elevator door closes on the Driver. His reservation was briefly dropped, but his reward is to be left immediately speechless and alone. Later, after the story here is over, I wondered if he would have been changed by what happened, if the next person to meet him would see something that we didn’t.