Drive - Ryan Gosling plays the enigmatic Driver in Nicholas Winding Refn

Ryan Gosling’s nameless hero in Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish thriller Drive is a type you’ll have encountered before, in everything from Westerns to films noirs: the laconic tough guy who is calm on the surface, tightly-coiled beneath; the lone wolf whose personal code of honour means he puts his own life on the line for others; the professional whose physical skills verge on the uncanny.

By day, Gosling’s Driver is a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic. By night, he’s a getaway driver, hired out for heists by his daytime employer and sole friend, garage owner Shannon (Bryan Cranston). But Shannon wants to put Driver’s skills to other use and approaches local mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his partner Nino (Ron Perlman) to bankroll a bid to break into the stock-car racing circuit.

As you’d expect, it’s a fateful step. And so is Driver’s choice to befriend his pretty, vulnerable neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), who is raising her young son alone while her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in prison. When Standard gets out, Driver’s soft spot for Irene leads him to join a raid to help the ex-con clear a prison debt. Of course, the heist goes bloodily wrong, leaving Driver to pursue a dangerous course to extricate himself and Irene from the mess.

Drive - Ryan Gosling plays the enigmatic Driver in Nicholas Winding Refn

“Cool and controlled”

From its opening shots, Refn’s movie is as cool and controlled as its protagonist. Artfully chosen locations, measured tracking shots and striking cinematography all contribute to the film’s heightened mood – at once unhurriedly stylish and intensely gripping. You’d like to lean back and admire, but the action keeps pulling you to the edge of your seat.

What Refn has done is pull off a felicitous marriage of hard-boiled American crime and European art-house sensibilities. Unsurprisingly, this year’s Cannes Film Festival jury loved the result and awarded Refn the Best Director prize. Yet not everyone will like Drive, far from it. Some will find the film too violent; others will reckon Refn is striving too hard to be cool.

The soundtrack music – synth-laden, 1980s-style Euro pop – could be a turn off too. To my ears, the jarringly prominent score only contributes to the film’s hypnotic, dream-like mood.

Drive- Cary Mulligan & Ryan Gosling

“A pulp fiction fable”

With its stock characters and archetypal narrative, the film is very much a pulp fiction fable in which a tarnished knight rescues the distressed dame. Instead of armour, Gosling’s hero wears a silver satin bomber jacket embroidered with a yellow scorpion – a warning of his capacity for lethal violence. Belonging to a different era, the jacket is as emblematic of its wearer as is Alain Delon’s trench coat in Le Samourai, Jean-Pierre Melville’s existential 1967 noir that is one of Drive’s precursors, along with Steve McQueen in Bullitt, Walter Hill’s The Driver and the films of Michael Mann.

Drive is a worthy heir to those films. And so is its lead. Oozing attitude and dripping with charisma, Gosling stands comparison with the likes of Delon and McQueen. Yet Drive isn’t a one-man show, despite its loner hero. The supporting cast is also superb, with particularly striking performances from Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks’ as hard-bitten gang moll Blanche and from Brooks as mobster Rose. Usually seen playing weedy, whiny nebbishes, Brooks here conveys an unsettling mix of bonhomie and threat. Like the throbbing motor of Gosling’s Chevy Impala, that sense of menace runs through Drive and helps make it so uneasily compelling. One of 2011’s best films so far.

Movie Talk star rating:

On general release from 23rd September.