Ryan Gosling plays a taciturn loner named Driver in the hot/cool action caper Drive. At least, Driver is the existential, you-are-what-you-do name he goes by, since the Los Angeles wheelman is so unforthcoming with personal information. By day, Driver steers stunts for movie productions. By night, he provides freelance getaway services for unsavory customers in need of transportation to and from the scenes of their armed heists. Driver's working wardrobe features a quilted white satin bomber jacket with a snazzy gold scorpion on the back. He enjoys the feel of a delicately notched toothpick between his lips while nimbly outmaneuvering cops on his tail. He never sweats, he's so unflappable even when beating a man to a pulp.
Among Gosling's many star-making qualities is his nuanced mastery, since The Believer, of a facial expression of infinitely adaptable, imperturbable, sustained calm that can read as chilling or ardent, hard or soft, as the role demands. In Drive, it's difficult to tell what's going on behind those pale eyes a conundrum alternately intriguing and wearying, especially when it comes to Driver's attraction to his apartment neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), the unlikely dame who will shape his fate. Irene's beauty and goodness (and her tenderness with her young son) move Driver to take outsize risks in ways he never has before, with huge consequences. That's quite a lot of power for a dimpled, demure, married mother and diner waitress, played with recessive schoolgirl modesty by Mulligan with little barrettes in her hair. Mulligan is a delicate and lovely rising talent, but she's confoundingly miscast in the role. With Gosling going all silent and mysterious when the two are together, the pair never click. (The actor has much more chemistry with Breaking Bad's great Bryan Cranston as Driver's mechanic/agent/manager.) Nevertheless, because of his magnetic attraction to Irene and her son, Driver is drawn into miles of trouble involving Irene's ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac) and a couple of thuggish gangsters, played in a burst of brio by Ron Perlman (as one scary, loud menace) and Albert Brooks (as one scary, soft-spoken menace). Brooks' Bernie is hiding a talent for shocking violence behind a smooth, pleasant face, a middle-aged bouffant of hair, and a lulling voice; it's a weird thrill to watch him do unspeakable things with a fork.
Those more enchanted with Drive than I am will argue that opacity of character doesn't matter in a piece that's all about mood expressed through style, rather than narrative logic expressed through believable chemistry. Certainly, under the direction of Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, the boldly talented European genre auteur who made the Pusher trilogy, the ultraviolent Bronson, and Valhalla Rising, Drive revels in sensory detail; it's a visually and aurally edgy Euro-influenced American genre movie about the coolness of noir-influenced American genre movies about the coolness of driving especially in L.A. (The script is by British screenwriter Hossein Amini, based on a novella by James Sallis.) And Refn is a confident master of arty action. The movie opens with an addictive getaway chase sequence through downtown streets, shot low to the ground and on the fly, motored by a burrowing, pulse-quickening techno score by Johnny Jewel. Later Refn stages a classic speeding-and-brake-squealing variation (with Mad Men's Christina Hendricks, dressed grubby and low-rent and shrieking in the backseat as a two-bit babe in on a scam). Later still he stages a satisfying, prowling, stalking showdown chase in L.A. darkness, one of those beauts of a set piece in which headlights appear out of nowhere as a shadowy vehicle bears down on its prey.
When talking about Drive, Gosling readily explains that, attracted to the script and jazzed by Refn's previous work, he personally sought out the director for the job. That kind of confident instinct when it comes to his own career is another one of the actor's strengths: He knows how to shift gears and take scenic routes, expertly flexing his ever-increasing star power while pursuing the open road of creative freedom. And with Refn, he has found a simpatico road partner. In Drive, the actor and director look great with the wind in their hair. B+