Get ready for the coolest movie of the year. Nicholas Winding Refn – who previously brought is the deceptively slow-paced Valhalla Rising and the out-there Bronson – delivers a real thrill ride of a movie with Drive (pardon the pun) but one that works on a quieter level than a lot of other similar films.

We’re officially out of the summer season and Drive is a great example of the grown-up type of cinema this type of year offers. Even if it often concentrates on the drama, it’s still at least part thriller, with plenty of car chasing (it ain’t called Drive for nothing) and shootouts. But there’s a depth to this film which sets it apart from many others of its type, a certain boldness which makes it stand out from the crowd.

Ryan Gosling (who seems to be in every other movie these days) plays a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for any criminals who need his services. One day he starts to form a relationship with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, eventually deciding to help her husband (who has recently been released from prison) to pull of a job in order to pay debts he owes to a crime boss. Needless to say things don’t exactly go to plan and the Driver (as he’s simply credited) gets mixed up with the wrong people a lot more than he had intended to.

On the surface Drive may seem like your average crime movie and indeed it does contain a lot of the tropes of the genre (big bad mob boss, shootouts, car chases and lots of swearing and violence). But Refn – one of the more unique directors working today – has created a distinctive tale of crime, not least with the elegant, handsome look of the film off-setting the often horrendous and violent things that take place on-screen.

Speaking of which, if you are at all queasy or of a nervous disposition you might want to watch this one with caution. It’s hard these days to shock with violence – purely because there’s so much of it in movies and on TV that we’ve become somewhat desensitised – but there were at least five times (at least) throughout where my mouth dropped open in shock and awe of how violent it was. That may sound like a knock but it’s entirely the opposite. This is dealing with serious situations and if they involve violence then it should be showcased in all its brutal reality. Drive isn’t afraid to show what would really happen if, for instance, someone was shot in the head. Violence is not a nice thing so why should the film hide that fact?

Gosling plays just about the coolest character of the year within the coolest movie. That stylish white satin jacket (with added scorpion embroidered on the back), that steely stare and that a tough demeanour which says “don’t mess with me or else,” even if he says only the bear minimum that he needs to (a man of action not of words). All of these things (and more) add up to one heck of a memorable protagonist.

Gosling puts in one of hiw best performances to go along with the likes of Blue Valentine and Half Nelson.
Drive also sports an impressive array of supporting actors including Brit actress Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks (playing wildly against type) and Christina Hendricks. The film does a good job of allowing each of them to have their time in the spotlight but still keeping Gosling centre stage.

You can’t really talk about Drive without mentioning the soundtrack. It’s arguably the best movie soundtrack of the year, consisting of a combination of original music by Cliff Martinez (The Lincoln Lawyer, Contagion) and existing songs, together giving off a distinctly ‘80s-synth vibe which, again, helps to make the film more than just your average crime-thriller. The music is almost like a character in and of itself, something of a trademark, and considering there are lots of segments without dialogue, the music fills and overlays those moments quite perfectly.

Drive cruises a long at wonderfully judged pace, quiet and methodical when it needs to be but still turning everything up to 11 if and when the moment calls for that sort of thing. For the most part it’s more of a stylised slow-burner than you might expect, more interseted in how things are presented technically, but that’s part of what makes it so great. Absorbing, audacious and utterly compelling, this is undoubtedly one of the films of the year because, perhaps above all else, it’s entirely unpredictable – how many films can you truly say that about these days?

Drive is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

This review was previously published at Blog Critics.