What makes a hero? If comic books are to be believed, a hero is someone who can fly, someone to fight evil wherever it exists. If we listen to the news, heroes are soldiers, policemen, and firefighters, men who risk their lives for the common good. We never hear, though, about the heroes that slip through the cracks. The men without clear motivations. The ones that aren’t battling nefarious criminals or working towards a better society. It’s in this gray area that Drive and its nameless hero, the Driver, exist. We don’t know who he is or where he came from, and he doesn’t care to tell us; we only see what he does over the course of 100 minutes. He never tells us why he’s doing what he’s doing, but somehow, in the end, we understand why. Ryan Gosling’s subtle performance as the Driver gives the film, and director Nicholas Winding Refn, the power to be fearless.
The story seems simple enough: the Driver falls for his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and must protect her from the gangsters whom her husband once worked with. It’s an ultra-violent tale, as most films including gangsters seem to be, but it doesn’t revel in its viciousness. Nor does it make any apologies; characters are beaten, stabbed, and shot with regularity. It doesn’t matter who they are, or how important they are to the story. There are no lingering, dramatic deaths or second chances. Director Refn dives straight into the action, and straight out again, treating important moments in the film as minor detours along the way. The film itself is cruising, speeding from beginning to end. Seemingly unimportant moments, such as the Driver seeing Irene in a grocery store, take up as much screen time as the death of a major character. Refn’s decision to keep the film moving is among his most important. It gives the film a momentum that few recent films have enjoyed, creating a magnetism that keeps eyes glued to the screen.
Ryan Gosling is the other reason you can’t look away. His character, the Driver, is a definite departure from the emotional, indie-friendly roles he’s played in the past. His dialogue is sparse, and when he speaks it’s usually in the sort of terse, short sentences found in early film noir. Sometimes he answers questions with only a nod or a blank stare. It’s brave of the director to center a story around such an ambiguous character, but Gosling delivers a powerful performance.
It’s unclear throughout most of the film what the Driver’s motivation for helping Irene actually is. Does he love her? Perhaps, but that begs the question of why. He’s only known her for a few days, and she’s married. Is it for Irene’s kid, Benicio? Again, it’s hard to say. The Driver spends time with Benicio, but never seems overly concerned with him emotionally. The mystery of why the Driver assists Irene isn’t one that can be solved using logic. It’s a connection that exists through emotion. We’re never told why the Driver is helping Irene, but it’s something we gradually begin to understand.
This visceral quality is what really makes Drive work. The film isn’t something you can work out in your head; it’s all internalized. It’s like that mysterious feeling you sometimes get when driving your car, when the weather and the music and the mood all seem to click. The feeling is nothing you can plan or explain, but it’s something we all can relate to. Drive isn’t a film that gives you the answers or tells you how to feel. You’re presented only with the concept of the Driver; it’s up to you to do the rest.