The Verdict: DriveNicolas Winding Refn's latest film accelerates into a coercive, exhilarating masterpiece

FOR WAY, WAY LONGER than you’d expect, Drive is a polite movie. It goes the speed limit. It makes complete stops. It signals before turning. It brakes on yellow. (Should I keep going?) The film is so well-behaved that you’d be forgiven for thinking your mom might like it, right up to the minute the first skull gets blown open. Ryan Gosling is so dreamy.

Drive makes the most of the disconnect between its extraordinary violence and its overwhelming sexiness, and then some. Where most hyper-stylized, ultra-violent films inevitably end up romanticizing the carnage (some quite successfully), the blood in Drive hurts and delights in roughly equal measure. It’s not Schindler’s List, but it’s not The Boondock Saints, either. Thank God for that. 

You’ve heard the gist of this story before: the film’s protagonist, who remains unnamed beyond “Driver” (Ryan Gosling, so good), is a Hollywood stuntman by day, getaway driver for hire by night, but he’s trying to go straight. Successfully, too, until he begins to fall for his muted, pretty (and married) neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan). The plot, though minimalist, resists easy summarization, but it’s enough to know that before long Irene and her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), find themselves in very serious danger. To save them all, Driver finds himself pulled back into the underworld for one last job!

Shit and other viscera hit the fan real quick on that one last job, and with a swiftness that is as exhilarating as it is frightening, Drive stops being polite. Characters are killed indiscriminately (and… messily). Stakes are raised. The film’s ‘80s vibe becomes less Scarface and more Blue Velvet, less outrageous and more hallucinatory. And somewhere in there—I’m not 100 percent sure where—Drive becomes one of the best movies of the year.

Much of the credit for this must be laid at the feet of director Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish filmmaker whose previous feature Bronson prompted moderate art house buzz when it crossed the pond in 2008. Drive is a director’s picture through and through. Dialogue is minimal; story is secondary. The film lives by its sights and sounds, and I’m hard pressed to think of a misstep. It’s the kind of movie where you remember specific shots, the best of which are as good as anything the movies of the new millennium have given us. In my favorite single image (it’s in the trailer, briefly), Driver uses a hammer to brutally threaten a man in the dressing room of a seedy strip club. The room is all light bulbs and mirrors and red, and the girls look on, naked, plastic, unmoved. They’re not people; they’re iconography, bleach blonde shorthand for all the jaded L.A. stories the movies have ever given us. Sexist? Probably. Potent? Absolutely.

Does it seem like I’m harping on the violence? I harp because I’m impressed. It’s been a long time since a movie’s violence has struck me on a level any deeper than “fun” or “interesting.” (I ate a box of Cheez-Its during Antichrist.) The gore in Drive has weight to it. It matters. Drive is not a movie about “real people” by any stretch, but there is a gnawing dread at its center, a troubling sense that these characters don’t deserve these circumstances. The film’s first gunshots come a full act later than the trailer might lead you to believe, but when they come, they’re loud.

The secret to Drive’s success isn’t that it’s a perfect movie. It probably isn’t. But along with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, it’s one of the only movies of 2011 that feels bigger than my opinion of it, more important. The two films couldn’t be more different in scope or intent—The Tree of Life is a profound meditation on the meaning of everything, Drive has a scene where a man’s face collapses in on itself—but they share an essential bravado, the confidence necessary to be great instead of just sleek. Lots of movies are “cool;” very few are inspired. Drive has the good fortune of being both.

Drive is now playing in theaters everywhere.

Previously from Tim Kennedy:

Why Kanye West Is Good For America

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