As they watch TV together, a man asks a boy if a cartoon shark is a "bad guy." "Just look at him," the boy replies. "Does he look like a good guy to you?" Over and over, Nicholas Winding Refn's neo-noir "Drive" implicitly asks this question, sizing up an individual and contemplating whether or not he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
For one thing, the best "wheel man" in L.A. (Ryan Gosling) must decide if he should help out an ex-con (Oscar Isaac) by serving as his getaway driver. Then there's Refn's playful casting of erstwhile comedy star Albert Brooks in what would ordinarily be the Robert Loggia role of a growly crime boss: Underestimate him at your peril. Above all, there's Gosling's anti-hero, the picture's still, quiet center. The scorpion on the back of his jacket alludes to the fable of the scorpion and the frog (famously appropriated by Orson Welles in his "Mr. Arkadin"). The driver's nature is to sting, but he finds himself in the role of rescuer. So Refn asks you: Does he look like a good guy to you?
The rescue in question involves the cartoon-watching boy and his pretty young mother Irene (Carey Mulligan), neighbors to Gosling's unnamed driver. By day a Hollywood stunt driver and local grease monkey, he's nothing if not a car whisperer. In the film's virtuosic opening movement, the driver demonstrates why he's so in-demand, playing a Chevy Impala in concert with a police scanner and making beautiful music of a robbery getaway. Though he mostly looks out for number one, the driver shows loyalty to his boss -- a limping garage owner named Shannon (Bryan Cranston, pitch-perfect) -- and a sympathy for Irene, for whom the driver clearly longs. (Also in Refn's rogues' gallery mix: Ron Perlman and "Mad Men"'s Christina Hendricks.)
Adapted by Hossein Amini ("The Wings of the Dove") from the book by James Sallis, "Drive" also tips its hat to Walter Hill's 1978 film "The Driver," whose hero also went nameless. But one might just as well say the L.A. story unfolds at the corner of Michael Mann and David Lynch. The Danish Refn ("Bronson") throws himself into a stylish genre exercise routine, expertly setting a mood with Echo Park dives, neon street light and '80s flavored music, as well as distinctive use of slo-mo, tense sound design and low-angle photography. Add bursts of ultraviolence compared and contrasted to throbbing libido, and "Drive" proves it's got atmosphere to spare.
Strip away that atmosphere and there's practically no there there, and certainly some will find repellent this next-generation noir made by and for those raised on a diet of gore pictures. But "Drive" is witty (especially a reference to arty European movies), exciting in its action sequences, and oddly moving in its stolen moments of repose, thanks in no small part to Gosling's resonant acting and Refn's haunting musical selections.
The film may be hard to swallow, but it leaves viewers with an ambiguous ending to chew on, and Refn's willingness to go out on the stylistic edge marks him as one to watch.