Nicolas Winding Refn isn't kidding about that middle name. His narrative style is as meanderingly arty as a narrative style can get, which can be grim news if you're a card holder of the Function camp but very good news if you vote for Form. Drive is the very definition of a mood movie. The quaintly cursive title in Mistral, a font that nobody uses anymore. The acres of slow-motion footage. The nameless hero, known only as Driver, who slips into a retro jacket, a silvery creation with a giant scorpion on the back, and burns up the asphalt in a Chevy Impala. The revelation of his face for the first time in his car's rear-view mirror, juxtaposed with the admonition, much later, that he will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

I could go on — but you get the idea. At one point, a gangster with the delightful name of Bernie Rose (played with dry panache by Albert Brooks) reveals that he used to be a producer who made action movies. “Some critic called them European,” he says. “I called them shit.” That sound you hear is the gauntlet landing near you with a definitive thud.

Refn is practically daring us to define his moody film (which, like Bernie Rose's oeuvre, happens to be an action movie) by putting into a character's mouth so bald-faced an evaluative option. Considering that a close-up of Driver (Ryan Gosling, toothpick tucked between teeth, gives an entertainingly showy performance, demanding to be anointed heir to De Niro's brooding crown) at the end appears to last an entire minute, does the arty posturing of Drive warrant a comparison to European cinema? Or are we being presented a parody pastiche — shit, in Bernie Rose's words? I still haven't made up my mind, though I suppose Drive is a bit of both.

Like all cinematic loners whose icy aloofness is thawed by the sunshine of a delicate feminine presence, Driver begins to lose his reserve as he initiates a tentative friendship with neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Her husband is in prison, and she enjoys having this taciturn man in her life — one evening, in the car, she puts her hand over his. But her husband returns, determined to make up for lost time, and Driver withdraws from the family he's come to think of his own.

And for the sake of the woman he loves, he undertakes an assignment that will help her husband. The film then turns into yet another validation of John Lennon's dictum that life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. (He may have written the song for his son, but the line is peerless in summoning up the ineluctability of destiny that is the heart of these doom-laden films.) Refn doesn't shy away from exceedingly brutal violence, though even these sprays from arteries he manages to render arty.

The bloodbath, combined with the conceit of two lost souls finding a semblance of salvation in an urban hell, makes Drive seem, at times, like Taxi Driver set in LA instead of NY, but without the freighted underpinnings. Bryan Cranston walks away with the film in a small role as Shannon, Driver's crabby father figure.

After negotiating a deal for a stunt sequence in an action movie, Shannon tells Driver, “I got you 500 more.” Before walking away, he adds, “Of course we split that.” He knows, unlike Driver, that he's in the kind of movie where money, not love, makes the world go round.

Drive

Genre: Thriller

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks

Storyline: A driver falls for a neighbour and watches as his life spins out of control

Bottomline: Arty and violent and involving