The hero of Drive is called "Driver" because that's what he does, and in a thriller this self-consciously existential, what he does is who he is.
He's played by Ryan Gosling as a kind of anti-blowhard. He's taciturn, watchful, cool. He works as a mechanic and sometimes a Hollywood driving stuntman. He also drives getaway cars with astonishing proficiency and a computer-like knowledge of L.A. surface streets, holding a matchstick between his teeth as if to keep his mouth from moving, and his feelings under wraps.
But Driver down deep is one of God's Loneliest Men. He needs someone to love, to risk everything for, to give him a reason to drive.
Drive was a sensation at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where they really go for existential thrillers, and this recalls such arty French favorites as Walter Hill's The Driver and Michael Mann's Thief. The ambience is floating, the characters off to the side of the frame leaving lots of empty space.
What distinguishes Drive from its predecessors is the ultra-graphic violence -- the sort that gore lovers call "wet." After each shooting, stabbing and stomping, you won't be saying, "Is he dead?"
The director is Nicholas Winding Refn, the Dane who made, among other films, a fast, tense crime trilogy called Pusher. He's a crackerjack craftsman. In an early heist sequence, Driver uses his knowledge of the urban maze to evade both cruisers and 'copters, and it's a tight, twisty piece of staging.
But Refn aims higher. He's said he's interested in the dark side of heroism, the way "righteous adherence to a code" can shift into the realm of the psychotic. I think he's more interested in punkish shock and splatter, and that he's just the guy to take Hollywood action to the next level: slick, amoral and unbelievably vicious.
The movie is cruel, but it isn't cold. Gosling lets emotion gradually bleed through Driver's impassive mask, and he becomes intensely likable. He has a tender relationship with Shannon, his manager in all three arenas -- auto-repair, film stunts and crime -- who's played by Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston in his third big movie of the last three months.
And boy, has Cranston earned that success. Shannon is a sweet, gimpy, luckless man who dreams of building a racecar to be driven by -- who else? -- Driver. For funding, he goes to Bernie Rose, a creepily inexpressive businessman played by, believe it or not, Albert Brooks.
How dirty is Bernie? It's well into Drive before you find out -- and maybe an hour until the industrial-strength splatter. In the meantime, Driver becomes involved, platonically, with his neighbor, a pretty young mother named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her lonely little boy. After some happy montages -- ending with Driver giving up crime, hoping against hope for a life with Irene -- the woman's husband suddenly gets out of prison, so that ends that pipe dream. Worse, the ex-con turns out to owe money to thugs who threaten to kill his wife and son if he doesn't rob a pawnshop for them. And so Driver is driven to make one last drive.
As you might have gathered from this synopsis, Drive is ridiculously contrived. But it works -- and works you over. The carnage is so horrible that people at my screening cried out. And to think that in the middle of much of it is Albert Brooks. There's something magical about his performance. You can taste his pleasure in playing his cards close to the vest, in not -- as in his own movies -- having to work so hard to be crazily, humiliatingly vulnerable. Let everyone else, including the audience, writhe. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.