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If you’ve seen Nicolas Winding Refn’s last two films, then you’ve witnessed two stunning and original features. Both last year’s “Valhalla Rising” and “Bronson” before it, are different films for the Danish director, yet his masterful touch is evident throughout each.

There is a great deal of unnerving violence in his films, but at the same time, there is a combination of slight humor and artful vision that allows viewers to become immediately mesmerized. Long after you view a Refn film, it becomes impossible to erase specific sequences and images from your mind, and his superb new film “Drive” is no different..

In this film, you will appropriately find Driver (Ryan Gosling), a man of few words. He’s at home cruising the streets of Los Angeles behind the wheel of his 1973 Chevy Malibu with a steel-gaze, toothpick in mouth, and donning a pair of skin-tight leather driving gloves. By day he works as a Hollywood stunt car driver and lends a hand at his mechanic friend Shannon’s (Bryan Cranston) body shop, and at night he works as a getaway driver for hire.

That’s how we first meet him, as the film opens with the intense aftermath of a night time robbery. Driver isn’t in it for the money and barely recognizes his nervous clients in his back seat, as he outmaneuvers police after their criminal act. It is simply an adrenal thrill and an exercise of skill for him.  He’s supplying a service. Simple as that.

While it’s hard to get a bead on what drives this Driver, we get the impression that he’s ready for a change.  So, it should be a good thing when Shannon presents him with an opportunity to get into stock car racing. Backed by a former movie producer Bernie (Albert Brooks) who may be involved in some shady dealings with his half-cocked partner, Nino (Ron Perlman), Driver just has to do what he does best and everything should fall into place.

Then he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan) who lives in the apartment next door with her young son. He’s taken by her quiet, soft-spoken nature and she takes to his helpfulness and charming demeanor. Their flirtation inadvertently pulls Driver away from his private life with its methodic habits, especially when he finds himself assisting her absent husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), newly released from prison, with a seemingly simple drugstore hold-up. It should be a clean job, one that will take any heat off of Irene and her son.

But we know better and what follows is a bloody mess as both new ventures violently converge. Driver should’ve known something was up when a useless partner (Christina Hendricks) is forced upon him by the thugs heading up the drugstore gig.

Setting out to right wrongs, Driver gets deeper in deeper into tight corners and sharp turns, in and out of his vehicle. Each relentlessly violent situation he’s in finds Driver retaliating with equal excess, which inevitably chips away at his quiet coolness.

Based on a 2005 novel by James Sellis, “Drive” is less concerned with in-depth characterization as it is providing an almost fairy tale quality to its story. British screenwriter Hossein Amini provides classic archetypes for Refn to embrace and a retro L.A. neo-noir atmosphere to place them in. It makes no difference that we recognize formulaic tropes, the fact is, we never really know what’s going to happen anyway. Since it is told in such a visually captivating way, we somehow appreciate any familiarity.

The acting in “Drive” is just as absorbing as Refn’s stylistic approach. Gosling is an ideal choice for Driver, and quite possibly the only guy who could rock a white satin jacket with a golden scorpion on the back.

His quietness exudes a Steve McQueen strength and his injections of humor reminded me of how charming early Burt Reynolds was. Although his dialogue is sparse, the role showcases a good amount of range. Driver can be sensitive and tender with Irene and her son (as seen in an amazing elevator scene), and eerily creepy wearing a stunt mask he effectively utilizes in the last half of the film. Gosling has deservedly earned heart-throb status with “The Notebook” and most recently “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”, but with roles like “Lars and the Real Girl” and this anti-hero, he shows he has a clear idea where he wants to steer his filmography.

Gosling and Mulligan have a growing on-screen chemistry, showing both characters moving forward with tentative caution. It’s a joy to watch these two together, but it’s a shame there isn’t more for such a talented actress to do here. As Irene, she embodies a tired and gentle soul, the kind willing to accept a strong, silent guy taking care of her. You can even see how Driver would want to be done with the life he’s led thus far, yet it’s doubtful he’s really thought it all through.  She represents a warmness absent in Driver’s cold life, which could be why his buddy Shannon encourages the two. Still, it would’ve been great to see more for Mulligan, but at least she doesn’t suffer as much as Hendricks does, who winds up completely wasted.

As for the main antagonists, Brooks will surprise audiences more than Perlman, just because we’re not used to seeing him in such a role. While Perlman is playing broad and big (not overacting, mind you), Brooks has a layered nuance to his menace, for a role that could’ve easily played to stereotypes. Many expect such a character from Perlman, who’s played his share of heavies, but Brooks, with his comedy background, really grabs you with Bernie’s intimidating mean streak and penchant for knives. It’s reminiscent of his criminal role in Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight”, just more uncomfortable and unforgiving.

Refn clearly displays his cinematic influences throughout “Drive” and that is fine, since so many scenes seem to fondly emulate those films rather than lazily lift them. Maybe he had Walter Hill’s “The Driver” in mind from  or “Thief”, Michael Mann’s  debut film, when he shot this film.

Certainly the intoxicating score by composer Cliff Martinez is going for a familiar 80s synth pop sound, made popular by Tangerine Dream in “Thief” and “Risky Business”. Speaking of that Tom Cruise classic, we see the same hot pink font from that movie in the opening title sequence here. Again, none of these nods are jarring, but rather leaves you smiling with your own knowing nod.

The Oscar-worthy cinematography by Thomas Newton Siegel (previously worked on films by Brian Singer, Terry Gilliam, and David O. Russell), delivers an excellent variety of visuals. Refn uses Siegel’s lens to establish L.A. as a character, driving us by McArthur Park, the Los Angeles River, and Pacific Coast Highway, in a stylish HD tour.

During the exhilarating chase scenes, the camera is level with the road, immersing the audience in a creative speeding frenzy. The brutal action we see (mostly on foot; despite the title, there is little actual driving) becomes increasingly gory with its stabbings, slammings, shootings and stompings. But never does it feel gratuitous. Refn has no body count agenda here; instead he brings a jolting realism in its urgent pace that shocks these characters (and us) out of their dreamscape.

From start to finish, “Drive” has unabashed thrills and suspense, yet Refn and his cast balance it out with some quiet and humorous moments, something accomplished only with a solid script. While the film solidifies Gosling as a versatile actor, it also introduces Americans to Refn’s genius (that’s not a lofty statement since the film received a standing ovation at Cannes this year, earning Refn a Director award as well). “Drive” is likely to be the coolest film you’ll see all year and possibly the most sensational cinematic experience as well.

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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