Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

Editorial note: in case you’ve forgotten, positive reviews or general praise about any media on CaPC should not be taken as blanket approval or recommendation. CaPC is not a replacement for discernment. Driver contains violence and sexual content. Also, you should be aware that the following column contains many car-puns. Read at your own discretion. 

The buzz for Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn) kicked into high gear at Cannes film festival when Refn won Best Director. Yet, despite that surprise accomplishment, early previews seemed intentionally restrained: I didn’t know much about the film going in, and did not expect much of what unfolded on the screen. Like the scant background of the film revealed in its initial previews, Driver’s (Ryan Gosling) history is also obscured. He is shrouded in mystery—mystique even (that jacket!).

Driver leads a double-life. By day, he is a stuntman driver for movies, and, by night, he is a hired wheel-man for various crime ventures. Like most people who play these roles, he maintains anonymity. Driver’s history is what gives him an air of both awkward innocence and quiet menace. Namely, it seems as though he doesn’t have many relational ties, and this makes his relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Benicio, all the more endearing; yet, the man with a mysterious background is one who is also unpredictable.

And so it goes with Drive: it is an endearing, wild ride with plenty of tension-building silences that give way to wince-worthy thrills. This unpredictability breathes life into an otherwise formulaic genre. With a style that is at times reminiscent of Michael Mann’s cool silences and loud explosions, and other times of Quentin Tarantino’s excessive-violence-as-commentary, Drive is a film primarily concerned with style over substance. And, yet, it is by virtue of its style that the film is more character-driven than are the standard-fare action flicks.

Accelerating the film’s unpredictability is the lead character’s anonymity and shrouded past. I kept thinking of Tom Stall in A History of Violence. What lies in Driver’s past that could possibly explain the calculated precision of his violence? With Tom Stall, we discover he was a gangster who is now trying to escape his violent past; in Driver’s case, we never do come upon a personal history.

An essential scene, then, is when Driver is approached by a former client who recognizes him in a bar. As soon as the man alludes to their past dealings, Driver’s rage revs. In his own memorable terms that I won’t spoil, Driver’s message for the fellow is clear: don’t go there, or I’ll make sure you won’t. Rather than trying to settle down and create a new identity for himself like Tom Stall, Driver is content to drive—or is he?

In a sense, the scene also alludes to an innocence that Driver has. Keeping his past quiet is perhaps not all about self-protection, but also about the protection of others: the less you know about me the better. And this—the double life of Driver—is what makes his love story with Irene so compelling. He cannot avoid the desire to spend more time with the family—even when the troubled husband returns home from prison. While time spent with Irene and Benicio is the best thing that has ever happened to him, Driver knows that he can’t stay with them if they are to be safe. For even his violent protection of the family will continue to follow him into the future. It is not just that his history of violence might catch up with him; rather, it is always caught up with him. So he must keep driving, anonymity intact.

What makes Drive especially cool is its persistent irony; Driver is the “deluxe version” of Irene’s troubled husband. In other words, in its sleek, but exaggerated use of style, Drive is self-aware that this popular form of vengeance-masculinity makes a person anything but “a real hero…a real human being.”

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