Even if you can't quite guess what goes on in Irene's head, you can see for yourself that the Driver is an appealing sort when compared to the other lowlifes around him.
"You want a toothpick?" Alone in a room with a little boy, Benicio (Kaden Leos), the Driver (Ryan Gosling) doesn't know quite what to say. He's given the child and his mother Irene (Carey Mulligan) a ride home, carried in the groceries, and now he's at a loss Benicio's okay with that, not being much of a talker himself. He's wearing a pumpkin mask on his face.
This brief interaction at the start of Drive is cut short when Irene comes into the room with a glass of water for their savior. The Driver's not any better at talking with her than with her son, and so, after he learns her husband is in prison and tells her what he does ("I drive"), he's on his way. The Driver likes to keep his life uncomplicated, as he tells his clients and his employers. An LA-based movie stunt driver by day, at night he drives getaway cars. That's all he does, he says. He doesn't carry guns or plan heists. All he does is get the thieves to the crime scene and away from it. He doesn't wait if things go wrong and he doesn't much care. He drives efficiently and not a little ingeniously, demonstrated in the movie's first sequence: a robbery that sort of goes bad (one of the culprits is nearly late, and the Driver, relying on info relayed by a police radio as well as his uncanny skills on hard turns and his preternatural patience.
Irene doesn't know about all this, and when the Driver is around her -- she and Benicio live in his building -- he's a little bit charming, in that repressed, maybe-stoic-maybe-vulnerable way that pretty young men in movies can manage. If he's not obviously an ideal romantic object, you might consider that he's attentive to Benicio (a point made by shots of Irene watching him with the boy), polite, and eager to help, offering rides when she needs them. And she does have a previous relationship with a criminal, so maybe she's not so pure as the Driver needs her to be.
Even if you can't quite guess what goes on in Irene's head -- because Drive is stylishly cryptic like that -- you can see for yourself that the Driver is an appealing sort when compared to the other lowlifes around him. As arranged by filmmaker (and Cannes' Best Director winner) Nicolas Winding Refn, these are by turns comic and horrifying. The Driver is most attached to his stunt-driving mentor and driving-pimp, Shannon (Bryan Cranston). He's the Walter Brennan character, the older guy with a limp and a lot of stories to tell, the one who dotes on his mentee, extolling his virtues to clients and anyone else who'll listen ("I got the driver. He's special. There's nothing he can't do").
Two of his listeners are the implacable gangster Bernie (Albert Brooks) and his sometimes partner in crime Nino (Ron Perlman), both talking big and thinking small. Wrestling with inner demons (Nino's especially wound up about all the anti-Semitism he finds in the gangster world), they talk fast (and quite amusingly) and because they're so ugly and crude, the Driver looks relatively sweet. His code of honor -- specifically, his determination to protect Irene and Benicio when her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), exits prison with a pile of debts making his family targets of retribution -- seems infinitely more admirable than theirs (theirs being, they kill everyone, horribly). Once these bullies are even remotely (and rather conveniently) involved with one another, and so Irene's at risk, you see where this reductive plot (boy meets girl, etc.) is headed -- even if you don't quite anticipate the Driver's own capacity for violence.
This capacity brings to mind any number of other movies, and really, Drive is more a movie about movies than anything else. It keeps focused on splendid compositions (sometimes, Gosling's face framed by a window is just enough), as well as lots of violence and some terrific driving sequences. Its allusions to lots of movies -- Walter Hill's The Driver, Taxi Driver, Bob le flambeur or The Killers, as well as Sixteen Candles (according to Refn), even The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, are more substantive than the hero's emotional or moral trajectory. He doesn't so much learn a lesson as head into a horizon -- behind the wheel, of course.
This means that the trajectories here are yours, and that's a tricky business. Watching the Driver explode on adversaries -- suddenly brilliant with a gun -- you know he's not like Bernie, and you see how he's come to this. But you knew why Travis Bickle came to his place too. Drive's most striking movie reference might be the one where you're watching Irene watch the Driver enact an especially awful beat-down, a moment that reminds you of Iris watching her self-appointed savior, blood everywhere. It's a moment that's at once frightening, tragic, and not startling enough.