Due to all the magic-sounding hype, I was expecting something that would make my jaw drop. I wanted to see something distinct. I wanted to be awed. And I thought that finally, finally, with the right actors and the right story, Refn could pull something like that off. But when the supposedly esteemed first scene rolled by looking and sounding like something straight out of Need For Speed, I knew that things weren't going to run smoothly. In fact, this letdown cast a shadow over the rest of the film for me, and so I was never able to really appreciate anything other than the solid production design and the supporting work of Carey Mulligan and Kaden Leos as a mother and son.
Ryan Gosling alternates between smiling diffidently and growling aggressive warnings as the Driver (a.k.a. the Kid), whose life basically revolves around cars. He's a mechanic, a stuntman, and a getaway man, and even when he's not working, he's driving through LA. Though he affects a bravado, complete with toothpick and scorpion jacket, we see him as a barren soul, sleep-deprived, anonymous, using the drive as an out-of-body experience. We as the audience pick this up, but Refn could've done better by playing up these elements a little more (which is not entirely achieved by showing Gosling driving in close-ups over and over again, which he does).
The Driver runs into Irene (Mulligan) in his apartment building, and, as they find themselves meeting often, the two grow drawn to each other, even though she has a kid (Leos) and a husband, known as Standard (Oscar Isaac), who is on his way out of prison. This section is more human than anything I've seen by Refn up to this point. But it is not to last, as the Driver gets himself inextricably involved in jobs and deals set up by Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his pizzeria-owner partner Nino (Ron Perlman).
And, at a certain point, with the brief use of a character, Blanche (Christina Hendricks), the film crosses a line. On the other side, it breaks with respectability and descends into increasingly cartoonish violence. By the time Brooks stabs a guy in the eye with a fork and then jams a knife into his throat, the initial shock of the savagery has worn off, and what we're left with is sad excess. This is ultimately what has been undermining Refn's works, and it will continue to do so unless the man can get a hold of himself. With "Drive," he's out of touch, though a bit less so than before. C