The driver gives you five minutes. You can do anything in those five minutes--I mean anything--and he will get you out of trouble. An instant longer and you're on your own. The driver is smart and calculating. His talent as a driver comes not just from his ability to push a vehicle hard and pull off incredible maneuvers, but also from knowing when to hide and when to blend in.
Ryan Gosling plays the driver as a man who lives deeply within himself. So deep that it's often difficult to see the person within as you regard the smooth surface he presents to the world. But director Nicholas Winding Refn, unlike so many directors today, understands the importance and power of stillness, and as the camera rests on the driver's face for long periods of time, we come to know something of who he is.
Most of my life has been spent in Los Angeles. I consider it a city whose particular beauty is elusive, and on film, I think it often looks plain. But Drive overflows with the beauty of Los Angeles; of its auto garages and strip mall pizzerias; of its cheap motels and winding mountain roads; of its downtown skyline and the sprawl of the Valley. Often, movies take place in Los Angeles simply because that's where the studios are located and it makes for an easy location. Drive is a story that belongs in Los Angeles. The driver makes some money doing stunt driving for the movies, and in that line of work, he substitutes a literal mask for the figurative one that he wears all the time.
There is violence in Drive; sparing, shocking violence that's all the more impactful because of the beauty and stillness that surrounds it. When it happens, it is like an eruption, something long-simmering under the film's surface (and the driver's surface) finally exploding into the picture. It's the kind of violence that demonstrates how casually so many other films treat violence.
As a lover of 80s films and the stylish crime films of Michael Mann (including Manhunter, Heat, and even Miami Vice), I took particular pleasure in Refn's use of 80s-influenced synth-pop. Drive's soundtrack recalls the hypnotic scores of Tangerine Dream, and the film's use of the song "A Real Hero" by College underscores the central romance with a kind of innocence that contrasts tremendously with the brutal circumstances the characters find themselves in. It lends that relationship a kind of mythical status, placing it above the violent world the characters inhabit.
But as important as that relationship is to him, like so many heroes played by Clint Eastwood in old Westerns, the driver seems to be built for something other than an ordinary life, with normal relationships and predictability and stability.
The driver drives.