Gosling's character, who remains unnamed for the duration of the entire movie, falls for Irene, a single mother, and when her ex boyfriend, Standard (whose thematically symbolic name is obviously not a coincidence) is forced to rob a pawn shop, the driver offers to help. The relationship between Driver and Irene was probably the most poignant in the film. The actors had very little dialogue onscreen, but still managed to establish a high level of complexity with just their body language.
Gosling keeps his hands in his pockets for a noticeably large chunk of his screen time, and maintains a constant nondescript, passive expression. I think that his control is what makes his character so fascinating. He manages to give his character a level of softness for the entire first half of the film. This creates a great deal of tension for the viewer, who knows what a dangerous man he really is. This tension is finally broken with his line "I'll kick your fuckin teeth down your throat" delivered to a former colleague at a diner. It is this line, in my opinion, that starts the second act of the film.
Refn spends a great deal of effort referencing other bodies of work. The central chase sequence, after the robbery occurs, is highly derivative of what is seen in Bullit in 1968: low angles of muscle cars, no music, and roaring engines. He also is heavily influenced by the work of Martin Scorsese, having dedicated the film to Taxi Driver. In fact, the film ends in a similar way: in trying to help a woman who he has had little contact with, he faces a near death experience, brutally killing everyone in his path. Like Taxi Driver, the climactic scene ends with him critically wounded, but still victorious, and, like Taxi Driver, there is ambiguity regarding whether he survives, or whether he dies and the final scenes are merely a dying vision of sorts.
Driver's transition from a cold, disconnected, businessman into a mythical superhero plays a very apparent role in the film. For instance, when he kills Nino, a Jewish gangster who originally blackmailed Standard, he wears his stunt-double mask. While he obviously doesn't need to hide his identity in order to kill him, there is still something inside of him that is ashamed. Perhaps this "hero" identity is not something that Driver is particularly fond of, having spent his entire criminal career emotionally detached from his crimes, and therefore the mask represents his discomfort around moral responsibility.
The soundtrack of the film, composed by Cliff Martinez, is heavily influenced by 80s pop music. The lyrics contain themes of heroism and redemption, emphasizing Driver's moral transformation throughout the film while at the same time trivializing it.
There is, however, a part of me that feels squeamish about such a heavy amount of homage. It seemed almost as if this film wasn't Refn, but more a "greatest hits" playlist of his predecessors. And while it can certainly be argued that all art is derivative, and therefore unoriginal, Dive does it in an incredibly self-conscious way. I see Drive less as a stand-alone film, and more as a comment of filmmakers of the past. I may need multiple viewings to decide how I feel about such a high amount of throwback.
But what makes Drive truly shine, is the film's iceberg approach to storytelling. By only explicitly revealing 10% of the film's identity to the viewer, the other 90% is up to us to decide. Refn is truly a master of minimalism, telling us a lot by only showing a little. Everyone has a something inside of them that drives them to do even the most radical things, and that internal drive is what makes this film so relatable, so heartbreaking, and so damn fun.