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.