The un-named Driver (Ryan Gosling) has a simple life and it mainly involves cars. He has a regular job fixing motors in a garage, but also has two major driving jobs; he’s a stunt car driver for the movies, which is exciting in itself, but he also drives criminals to and from their nefarious activities to escape the police which is possibly even more exciting but a lot more risky. He strikes up a friendship with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her enthusiastic son and this gives him a break from the more unusual elements of his life. But her partner is coming out of jail soon and that could ultimately involve all of them getting mixed up in dangerous and violent activities.

After the distinctly odd Valhalla Rising (2009) and artistically violent Bronson (2008) comes Drive, a compelling character driven movie from Nicolas Winding Refn. Although the premise may give the impression that this is going to be an all-out action film, it is actually the relationship between the Driver and Irene that dominates the story. There are likely to be comparisons with Walter Hill’s film The Driver (1978) but here the focus is different. Although a heist is central to the plot, rather than launching into a cops ‘n’ robbers style pursuit, Refn’s narrative is more subtle. While the crime element is important it is actually secondary to the development of the relationships between the central characters. Refn’s Driver is a Hawksian male, professional and detached, and with a clear reluctance to interact with people outside a business context.

What Refn manages to achieve is to make his audience care about the development of the Driver’s humanity – albeit with a savage violence which is necessarily a part of his daily existence – a strange combination of compassion and aggression. This is not to place the film within a male centred action genre where brutality is an accepted normality but one where the savagery becomes, at least to the character, a necessity not only for his survival but for the wellbeing of the people he has come to care about. The violence, as in Refn’s previous films, is direct and unrestrained and the conclusion involves incidents that are shocking in their apparently normal brutality but also, strangely, in their pathos. In many way the relationships that develop between the Driver and his neighbours (the estranged Irene and her son, together with her ex-convict husband) are what turn a standard crime/heist plot into a fasinating and gripping cinematic excursion.

Drive has, without doubt, consolidated Refn’s position as a director to watch out for. Like his previous films, Drive is enriched by a striking visual style and a fantastic soundtrack, that recalls the 1970s and 80s, relating powerfully with on-screen events, driving the action and enhancing the emotion. Overall this is compelling movie. Yes, the violence is graphic and occasionally extreme, but the character and relationships are well developed, varied and thoroughly engaging.