After a summer of cheap thrills, Drive delivers thrills on the cheap. With a budget Michael Bay might have allocated for a single effects sequence in Transformers 3, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn made one of the best movies of the year. Following Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn crafts his most polished, commercial work yet, while retaining all the ambiguity and unbridled aggression of his tough-as-nails art house pictures.
Bearing thematic resemblance to Darren Aronofsky's recent output, Drive is like Black Swan in overdrive. The film pins its headlights on the dark implications of unchecked obsession and good intentions gone haywire. That dangerous duality – humanity on the razor's edge of animal brutality – is played to unnerving perfection by Ryan Gosling.
Rightly among the most reliable names on the Hollywood marquee, the star of Drive plays a crucible of a character. A friendly, fatherly figure to his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, he's decidedly less so when the two are threatened. A sort of oblique, ultraviolent superhero, the driver leaps to defend the innocent with bloody determination. If the first half of Drive plays as drama, the second is straight up revenge fare.
Playing on the juxtaposition of calm and calamity, Refn keeps us on our toes throughout. Quiet moments stretch into suffocating silence, and the explosive violence that inevitably shatters it practically tears the frame in half. The audio is expertly mixed; you'll want to see Drive loud. From its roaring engines and visceral blows to its curt dialogue, the film is an altar to the power of great sound design.
In truth, Drive isn't pervasively violent, though its most excruciatingly effective moments leave a memory trail like tire streaks on a sunbaked highway. At the heart of the story is a compelling, surprisingly tender romance. Carey Mulligan has proved herself a similarly reliable talent to Gosling, and has worked in recent years with the likes of Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, and Mark Romanek.
Her fragile character's relationship with the driver is subtle and nuanced in a manner atypical of thriller convention. They're not family, they're not even sleeping together. Drive is not a sexy film. Refn fetishizes neither cars nor women; if The Fast and the Furious is the sleek exterior curves of an automobile, Drive is the greasy, undulating pistons. And it's utilitarian at a lean 100 minutes.
The rest of the small cast also impresses. Albert Brooks plays against type as a cutthroat crime lord, and a note-perfect Ron Perlman plays his meathead partner. Bryan Cranston of TV's Breaking Bad has a small role too, as employer and confidant to Gosling's character. Their relationships shuffle as lines are drawn and redrawn, but none of them comes away unscathed by the film's end.
Drive is either the explosive end to a lukewarm summer movie season or an early autumn adrenaline rush. In machismo, it far outpaces its hundred million dollar competition, leaving overwrought tales of lesser heroes like Thor and Green Lantern in the dust. Its troubled characters, and the bonds of desperation that link them, elevate the film above its genre trappings and shield it from disposable entertainment status.
Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is an anomaly. It's like a 1200 horsepower hybrid. And it's one of the best movies of 2011.