Review in a Hurry: Ryan Gosling is a driver. He's a very good driver. He can drive stunt cars and getaway cars, and he can also fix cars. Then one day, things don't go so well. Lots of violence happens. Simple, yes, but funny how the no-frills approach really, really works in this instance.
The Bigger Picture: It's fascinating how the simple act of eliminating a lead character's back story can make a movie 100 percent better, at least in this case. Most filmmakers would have taken the time to show us exactly why Gosling's unnamed driver is so focused on cars and punctuality, perhaps with flashbacks to his childhood as in the James Sallis novel the movie's based on.
But director Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson) and screenwriter Hossein Amini (the forthcoming Snow White and the Huntsman) give us nothing to go on besides his single-mindedness in the present, which feels appropriate. He doesn't analyze his actions or focus on the past, so why should the film do that on his behalf?
We know the driver instead through his actions. He's a master behind the wheel, whether crashing cars for the movie business or holding his more criminal clients to a strict five-minute timetable. There's no margin for error in his life, and he's so unaware of his own need for human contact that he barely understands what it is when a beautiful next-door neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son spur a vaguely remembered sense of protectiveness. When her husband returns from prison in debt to some seriously scummy shysters, the driver's willing to help him do one last job to pay off the psychos and protect the family. But those one last jobs never quite work out as they should, and one of the hazards here involves Albert Brooks, doing a surprisingly scary turn as a crooked mobster.
So silent and still is Gosling that the moments of violence, when they do come, would be shocking no matter what. Be forewarned, though: While the gore isn't wall-to-wall, it's horror-movie level when it does erupt. One could infer that the driver is still in shell-shock from similar prior events, but that's just a guess. The hypnotic, synth-driven songs and score that power many of the driving scenes suggest his attempt at entering a more peaceful trance.
It's possible that Drive benefits from low critical expectations in a slightly disappointing cinematic year, but it's certain nonetheless that it's one of the best of 2011.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Refn occasionally goes overboard with subjective illumination. During several notable scenes, the use of an overly artificial spotlight distracts from the metaphorical one the moment already inherently has.