Sometimes a movie knows you’re watching it. It knows how to hold and keep you, how, when it’s over, to make you want it all over again. Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive’’ is a work of swift, brutal violence, but it’s not the violence - a viciously stomped head, say, or the way a shotgun blast sounds like a bomb - that’s sexy. It’s the confidence to bring off the violence without appearing to break a sweat, to blatantly steal from Michael Mann without fear of being hauled off to movie jail, to deliver a hero whose signature jacket isn’t leather. It’s a white, quilted Starter number with a giant gold and orange scorpion embroidered on the back. On anyone else, it’s a garment that says “karate parent.’’ On Ryan Gosling, the embroidery’s an advertisement for a poison sting - from both Gosling and Refn.
Gosling’s an actor whose cool, under these circumstances, conflates Steve McQueen’s cockiness with James Dean’s drama. He plays a loner getaway car driver in Los Angeles, and amasses enough small gestures (a tensing jawline, a flexing fist crinkling in a leather glove, the slight shifts of the toothpick parked in a corner of his mouth) to create a character out of a gaming avatar. The movie has you from its nearly wordless opening sequence, which, just through crisp staging and superb editing, tells us everything we need to know - about what’s going on, what the stakes are, and how immaculately the Driver intends to run his business. It takes half the movie for that jacket to stain.
The lighting in that introductory sequence and beyond seems to come exclusively from street lamps, store fronts, and dashboards. The synth of Cliff Martinez’s score does for this movie what Tangerine Dream did for Mann’s “Thief’’: keep the suspense tap open. There’s a handful of well deployed songs by Kavinsky, Desire, and the Chromatics. It’s electronic music that situates you in LA both 25 years ago and five minutes from now.
Not much after that first job, there’s a cut to Gosling in a cop’s uniform. It’s a gag. This guy is also a Hollywood stunt driver, and when, after work, he finds himself sharing an elevator with the terminally sad-looking woman down the hall, Irene (Carey Mulligan), then having a look at her broken-down car in a supermarket parking lot, there’s reason to suspect he’s still on the set. Irene has a cute son (Kaden Leos) who’s among the closest things live-action has to rival Japanese animation. Irene also has a cute husband (Oscar Isaac), who’s in prison, and soon to be released. Before he gets out, the Driver, Irene, and the kid spend their days looking at each other. The long drags these three take on each others’ faces approximate the panels in some comic books.
The bond among them makes it impossible for the Driver to resist a new job that will help the husband erase a debt he owes to a gangster. It’s worth noting that the screenplay - by Hossein Amini, adapted from James Sallis’s novel - has anticipated what we’re tempted to think: The husband first name is “Standard.’’ But that job - a pawnshop robbery - occasions another outrageous, alarming couple of set pieces that climax in a motel room and feature two gunshots that made me feel as if my head had just been blown off. The violence here is exciting but it isn’t cheap, either.
That job lands the Driver in boiling water with two very different but closely connected gangsters, played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. Brooks wears nice shirts and has had his hair straightened in a way that lends him a new, low-rent gravitas. He embraces his killer menace so much you believe him - it’s a part Bill Murray would have had as much fun with but would have been less of a shock to see. Brooks’s character, Bernie Rose, says he produced movies in the 1980s, action movies, pretty much like this one. He also happens to be the same man who just put several hundred grand into a race car to be driven by the Driver for the Driver’s boss (Bryan Cranston) at an auto repair shop. Regarding the news that the Driver is also a mechanic: Apparently, this is how much crime doesn’t pay?
Nonetheless, Refn even magnetizes the cliches. Is Irene worth everything the Driver risks for her and the kid? Only in the movie playing in his head. “Drive’’ is not much about other movies. It’s about Refn’s perception of the movieness in life. The director is a 40-year-old Dane, who, before this, had made a handful of strong, visual, mood-oriented films - a crime trilogy called “Pusher’’; “Bronson,’’ a grand character study of a flamboyantly psychotic English inmate; a dreamy Viking epic called “Valhalla Rising.’’ They were all uneven, but they’ve earned Refn a cultish devotion that this movie is likely to expand exponentially.
He has a big, thick style. It’s impasto filmmaking and it benefits from a conventional script and an established genre. In “Drive,’’ Refn finds about a half-dozen ways to disturb with the combination of utter stillness and grisly violence. When a man has his hand manically hammered backstage at a strip club, the dancers sit topless and look on with the detachment that you imagine Refn used to film the scene. He’s described “Drive’’ as a fairy tale, which sounds disingenuous (Refn is sure to become as notorious for his statements to the press as his countryman Lars von Trier). But he’s not wrong. “Drive’’ has moments of magic, in which he dares to nudge the tiniest bit at the limits of time and space. In one elevator ride, the second before the Driver beats a man senseless, he steals a moment of romance that, impossibly, lasts for an eternity. Nothing. A kiss. Then stomp-stomp-stomp. The absurdity is exhilarating. The exhilaration is absurd. This is such a visually muscular movie that you have to laugh at the bravado. If he wants the job, Refn could become a hero to a generation of kid moviegoers the way Tarantino did for a previous one: as a controversial pop-artist.
There will be those who’ll say they liked this movie better when it was “Thief,’’ Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï ,’’ Walter Hill’s “The Driver,’’ or any very good Hong Kong action thriller. But Refn’s version produces a similar high. A friend who hated “Drive’’ complained that it’s a European telling us what he thinks American movies are: Kiss kiss bang bang. I see her point. We do more than kiss and bang. But this is just a genre Europe - OK, the French - used to excel at and no longer do. Refn won the director’s prize at Cannes in May, and France’s enthusiasm suggests what they’re missing from their movies. Meanwhile, “Drive’’ confirms that the smooth, blunt Refn is exactly what’s been missing from ours.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.