Really now, I wonder whether this has any more depth or nuance than something like The Fast And The Furious. Refn's loyalty to archetypes and fairy-tale simplicity remains intact. He didn't choose this film, he was chosen for it by Gosling, and my feeling is he did little apart from bring his idiosyncratic style to it and strip away the excess to bare-bones plot, character, action. But is that enough?
Sure, Refn's unusual casting choices pay off, although I suspect more could have been done with them. Gosling is no action hero, his expression remains too weirdly childlike, but there isn't all that much underneath it either. Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks playing at gangsters has a certain thrill of the unexpected, but their dialogue is extremely by-the-numbers compared to what (for example) Tarantino could have delivered with the same materials. Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks don't have to do anything apart from look pretty and vaguely troubled, although they both do that very well.
So what is Refn trying to say? I don't understand whatever existentialism is implied by the driver's automobile fixation. Like Valhalla Rising (and, I guess, Bronson, although I haven't seen it), Refn comes back to study male bloodlust. Like One-Eye, the driver kills and sacrifices himself to protect a little boy, in part learning to love as well as hate. Why Refn returns to this chivalric motif is a mystery to me, but I'm rather suspicious of the kind of gender biases that may lie behind it. The trouble with sticking to archetypes is that they limit your field of possibility, which inherently leads to conservative results.
I didn't mention it in my post on Valhalla Rising, but Refn's style requires a certain degree of patience. That film was so nuts that I found I wanted to stick with it only to see what crazy territory it would move into next. Drive is more grounded, and the slow pans across beautifully designed soundstages can be quite tiring. The hot pink titles and the great 80s-indebted soundtrack are fine embellishments, but without the throb of a well-paced plot beating through it, the film's style starts to drag a bit.
I don't think Refn is capable of making dull films. His eye for great frames and his willingness to make uncompromising choices marks him out as a director worth watching. He reminds me of Chan-wook Park, another filmmaker who tries to add an art-house sensibility to genre movies. The work of both directors is superficially gorgeous, but has troubling or incoherent themes. It's still early days, though. Perhaps they'll get over themselves and try to collaborate fully with good writers. Or maybe they'll learn on their own. As of now, they still haven't made the masterpieces they are clearly able to make.