For a movie called "Drive" in which the main character is known only as "Driver," there's not actually a lot of driving in Ryan Gosling's new film. But that only makes the behind-the-wheel sequences that do happen feel even more tense.
The film starts beautifully, with Gosling's character, a movie stuntman by day, working as a wheelman in a robbery. He lays down the law to the two criminals tersely and professionally. Essentially, he drives. That's it. He doesn't get involved with their petty issues and why or how they're committing their crime. His goal is to safely spirit the car and passengers away from the crime once it happens, then he's out. Five minutes, he says over and over, carefully setting the watch he straps to his steering wheel. Five minutes.
Unfortunately, Driver soon finds he can't live his entire life quite that cleanly. He falls for sweet neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan, a bit of a cipher here) who might as well be a single mom since husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is behind bars. When he's released, the movie could have turned into a man-on-man, mano-a-mano fight for Irene, but it doesn't. Instead Driver finds himself using his driving skills to try and help Irene and her son by helping Standard, and things quickly go bloodily wrong.
The film's dark elements and sparse settings (this is a Los Angeles of strip malls and stoplights, not surfers and starlets) add to the feeling that you're never quite sure what's coming down the road for Driver. He seems quiet and simple, but can move from unruffled to deadly bloody violence in less time than it takes his car to go from 0 to 60.
The smart film is bolstered by some neat casting of the schlubs who surround him. Ron Perlman's long puddingy face helps make him a menacing mobster, and Albert Brooks is always in control as a producer/criminal who sounds so reasonable even when he's sticking a fork in someone's eye. Christina Hendricks is barely in the movie as a mob moll, but she does get a whoa-didn't-see-that-coming scene. Bryan Cranston plays Driver's boss and perhaps his only friend, but he's got problems of his own.
From its ads, "Drive" looks like an action-chase movie, but it's no "Fast and Furious." It's darker, quieter, a little bit of a throwback to those late lamented 1970s movies where lead characters were sometimes inscrutable and silences said more than dialogue. You'll find yourself thinking about it on your own drive home.
There's an old saying about driving long distances at night: You may only be able to see as far as your headlights, but you can make it the whole way. That seems to be Driver's motto here — just give him the keys and he'll figure it out and somehow triumph. But life can't be lived behind a wheel, and the world outside the car is a lot darker.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is TODAY.com's movies editor.