This review throws out the Schlockmania rule­book because Drive is not schlock.  However, it deserves men­tion on this blog for two rea­sons.  The first is that it takes pulp fic­tion arche­types and con­ven­tions and recon­fig­ures them in an inter­est­ing way, cre­at­ing some­thing beau­ti­ful enough in its craft to qual­ify as an art­house film while skill­fully evad­ing the pre­ten­sion that often comes with such a label.  It’s also the best directed film Your Humble Reviewer has seen this year.

Drive begins with a noir-ish plot­line, adapted from a novel by James Sallis, that has echoes of Thief and The Driver. Driver (Ryan Gosling) leads a sim­ple, soli­tary life, divid­ing his time between work­ing as a stunt dri­ver in movies and doing getaway-car work pro­vided by his mentor/day-job employer, Shannon (Bryan Cranston).  He is a cipher-like pres­ence but emo­tions lurk behind his mute, blank exte­rior.  Those emo­tions find a focus when Driver becomes involved with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother whose hus­band is in prison.

However, Driver and Irene’s brief idyll ends when her hus­band Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns home and she takes him back.  Unfortunately for every­one, he’s in debt to some crooks for pro­tec­tion money and they are threat­en­ing his fam­ily if he doesn’t pull a job for them.  Driver signs on to han­dle the get­away car… and the rest is best left to view­ers to dis­cover for them­selves, for this is where Drive takes its famil­iar genre ele­ments into unpre­dictable ter­ri­tory that is daz­zling and shock­ing by turns.

The end result is both sub­ver­sive and exhil­a­rat­ing.  Some less atten­tive crit­ics have com­plained that Drive recy­cles stock ele­ments, which sug­gests they weren’t pay­ing atten­tion.  Drive does fas­ci­nat­ing things with its arche­types, espe­cially with the hero: with­out get­ting too deeply into spoil­ers, the viewer is led to expect redemp­tion for him in the early scenes but what fol­lows reveals a darker nature to the char­ac­ter than is first shown.  Other char­ac­ters offer sim­i­lar twists of expec­ta­tions, espe­cially Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a crime king­pin who is played for humor at first but ulti­mately reveals the bru­tal instincts that help him achieve his “boss” status.

Along sim­i­lar lines, as the sec­ond half of the film plows into dark ter­ri­tory, view­ers come to real­ize that the film is strip­ping away the roman­ti­cized ele­ments of the crime story to reveal the dis­turb­ing nature of its essen­tial ele­ments. At the same time, Drive finds untapped ele­ments of human­ity in the human wreck­age that lit­ters its land­scape: every­one here has a dream and each is held back from achiev­ing it due to destruc­tive rela­tion­ships that lead them fur­ther down a trou­bled path.  Hossein Amini’s lean script does won­ders by deliv­er­ing this sort of the­matic com­plex­ity through a clean, sparsely-detailed nar­ra­tive laced with terse yet well-crafted dia­logue.  It never over­plays its hand and as a result, its sur­prises pack a wallop.

That said, smart script­ing is merely the bedrock of all the inven­tive things going on here.  The per­for­mances reflect the sur­pris­ing depth of the mate­r­ial: Gosling man­ages to hold the viewer’s atten­tion with a min­i­mal­ist yet intense per­for­mance in which each shift of facial expres­sion speaks vol­umes.  Mulligan builds a con­vinc­ing chem­istry with him, allow­ing the film to have a sense of romance that keeps the viewer engaged even with things get shock­ing, and Cranston brings grav­i­tas to the role of the crooked but charm­ing men­tor.  Brooks is rev­e­la­tory as the sly king­pin, throw­ing aside the neu­rotic per­sona he has devel­oped over the years to cre­ate a sur­pris­ing and con­vinc­ing por­trait of an L.A.-styled crook.  He also gets able sup­port from Ron Perlman in a delib­er­ately car­toon­ish (but well-judged) turn as Brooks’ sleazy part­ner in crime.

However, the cru­cial thing that trans­forms pulp into art in Drive is the direc­tion of Nicholas Winding Refn.  His tech­nique is unfail­ingly pre­cise: the fram­ing of every shot is styl­ishly spe­cific, every cam­era move is judi­ciously deployed and every sequence is edited in a seam­less man­ner.  The end is incred­i­bly styl­ish yet has an econ­omy to its lay­out that allows the viewer to savor the visual sto­ry­telling skill on display.

It helps that Winding-Refn has brought in some gifted tech­ni­cians to achieve the film’s sump­tu­ous look and sound: Newton Thomas Sigel’s pho­tog­ra­phy allows L.A. to show the kind of ghostly beauty it hasn’t dis­played in a film since Collateral and the amaz­ing score from Cliff Martinez has a steely yet glossy feel that evokes early 1980’s Tangerine Dream (there are also some bril­liantly inspired song choices, mostly from mod­ern new-wave revivalists).

That said, don’t get the impres­sion that style is used as a buffer to make things easy on the viewer.  Winding-Refn’s seduc­tive grasp of tech­nique is used to dis­arm the viewer so when the sec­ond half’s sur­prises kick in — along with a few gen­uinely shock­ing sequences of vio­lence — the audi­ence is effec­tively at the mercy of his direct­ing abil­i­ties.  He also opens his 1st act and closes his 2nd act with two of the best car chases in a movie since Ronin: no physics-defying CGI trick­ery here, just expert stunt dri­ving and judi­cious camerawork/editing to remind you of how good crafts­man­ship can make action ‘sing’ in a movie.

In short, this is Your Humble Reviewer’s pick for movie of the year, of any kind.  Some have shrugged it off for being a critic’s dar­ling or rejected it due to a bad ad cam­paign that made it look like another meat­headed action thriller… but they’re wrong, dead wrong.  It’s a rare plea­sure to see a film­maker take famil­iar mate­r­ial and cre­ate some stun­ning through an inspired appli­ca­tion of film­mak­ing skill.  Drive is one of those occa­sions so you can believe the hype: this is going to be a major cult movie.