In a movie as determined by style as Drive is, the casting is essential, because if the performances aren’t strong, the actors can appear imprisoned by the art direction, reduced to hieroglyphs in a frieze. Despite how flamboyant the filmmaking is, Drive’s biggest asset is the decidedly non-showy lead performance by Ryan Gosling as Driver, which serves to anchor the action. (Or the lack of it, as the woman who filed suit against the movie’s distributor for misleading advertising might complain.) At the age of 31, Gosling is already in the very fortunate position not of taking whatever comes his way, like the overwhelming majority of actors, but of curating his own career, with each role showing his talent in a different light.
Glance at Driver and you might assume Gosling is a natural fit for the strong silent type, but place Driver alongside just two of Gosling’s other roles from 2010–11 alone and the story becomes more interesting. David Marks, the New York real-estate heir whose conscience slowly gets snuffed out (along with his soul) in All Good Things is a deeply creepy, chilling figure, much like the movie as a whole. Pale, looming David is a tricky challenge for an actor, because he’s so recessive, all but hollowed out emotionally.
In stark contrast, Dean in Blue Valentine has the temperament of a child and can’t suppress anything he feels. Despite being a devoted husband and father, he’s disastrously unsuited for adulthood — his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, even pathetic, yet he never quite loses the viewer’s empathy, because he’s all too believable. By the climax of the movie, flailing, ineffectual anger is his only means of expressing himself.
When I think back to each character, they seem to inhabit separate bodies, and the well-meaning big lug Driver seems to be a third man entirely. And “flailing, ineffectual anger” is the last quality you would ever associate with Driver. Imposing physicality is key to the role: I watched The Ides of March a week before I was assigned Drive, so it was instructive to see how bulked up Gosling is in the latter, and how director Nicolas Winding Refn frequently shoots him from a low angle to emphasize Driver’s dominating presence. This guy bears no resemblance to the gawky, insubstantial Dean. The viewer has no trouble believing that the character is a stunt performer capable of absorbing intense physical punishment, nor that he can beat the crap out of someone when pushed too far.
Gosling’s performance here is a memorable entry in the “Don’t just do something, stand there” school of screen acting, where an actor communicates everything he needs to with very few words. Whereas in the later scenes of Blue Valentine Dean is all needling, abrasive nervous energy, Driver is still, his gestures reduced to an economic minimum, in keeping with a long tradition of laconic movie loners.
When Driver shares a brief platonic idyll with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her little boy, his posture eases, and his habitual stoicism softens into a placid contentment. Sitting next to the kid on the couch like a gentle giant, watching TV, he seems to give off a little hum of fulfillment. But a few scenes later, when Irene’s husband has returned from jail, a profile shot of Driver at a diner counter is remarkably expressive. There‘s a listless stare in his eyes, and his slack body language bespeaks an almost comical sadness. The shot goes by in a blip, but it tells us everything about how bereft he is. It’s no wonder Refn reportedly cut large amounts of dialogue from the script — when an actor is able to convey this much without speaking, words would just be redundant.