By Elliott Miller

“Drive ” is not what you’d expect.

Watching the trailers and other promotional material, it looks like an above-average R-rated retread of “The Transporter”.  In reality, however, it is a fiercely intelligent, quiet, violent, poetic, tense character drama that proudly emerges as the single best film of 2011 thus far.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what “Drive” is without saying a lot of words that seem like they should conflict with one another, so I’ll start with the plot. A getaway driver (played by Ryan Gosling) who has fallen for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) agrees to help Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) who has just been released from prison on a heist to repay some gangsters for protection in prison. The heist goes wrong, and the Driver ends up with 1 million dollars that belong to crime bosses Bernie and Nino (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, respectively). Then, as you might have guessed, the hunt begins.

The plot itself sounds lifted from an average 80s action movie, and while that would be a problem in any other film, it’s only in service to the film here. This is not a film about its plot, but rather the characters that the plot drives, or lack thereof. The way that the plot is presented is in itself unique in that it takes action movie staples and turns them on their head. For example, a scene in a strip club is populated by topless women, but even these women, who would be simple eye-candy in any other film, can do nothing but watch with their mouths agape at the events transpiring before their eyes.

The first 30 minutes of “Drive” contain just about no action at all, save a white-knuckle opening sequence in which Driver (Ryan Gosling’s character is never explicitly named in the film) escorts two robbers away from a crime scene. Right off the bat, you can tell this is a different kind of movie. There aren’t any car crashes or explosions in this sequence, just Driver coolly evading the police in a realistic and imperfect fashion. The driving is all real here; no CGI is ever used with any of the driving as far as I can tell. The film then progresses to show Driver simply living his life. He works part-time as a stunt driver for action movies with his mechanic boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad, smoking up a storm). He moves into an apartment complex  where he meets Irene and begins to build a relationship with her and her son. There is little to no dialogue between Driver and Irene, just polite statements and extended silence. Somehow, this better develops the characters than extended dialogue would.

The film totally immerses you in its world and characters before the plot begins and the film really becomes nothing like any action film you’ve ever seen. The hypnotic, trance-like tone of the first half-hour is maintained, but is sporadically interrupted by brief moments of extreme violence more shocking and memorable than anything in the Saw films, and 100-fold more meaningful. Nothing in this film, from characters to plot to the nature of the violence in the movie, is without significance, and the excellent cinematography and completely amazing 80s-esque synthesized soundtrack only reinforces this. Much of this can be attributed to Swedish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising), who, as far as I’m aware, has yet to make a bad film.

The acting is also a universal home-run. Albert Brooks, normally a comedian, is a terrifying villain simply because in polite conversation, he is not at all menacing. Carey Mulligan is terrific as well as the delicate, damaged Irene. All the supporting work, including a turn from “Mad Men”‘s Christina Hendricks, is outstanding, and every character seems like a real, complex human being and not just someone to be used up in the plot. The real standout here, however, is Ryan Gosling. He makes a character who barely talks and has no name or back story not only empathetic but totally fascinating. You will find yourself in this character.

Director Howard Hawks said that a great movie is defined by at least “three great scenes and no bad ones.” “Drive” has at least nine that I can think of off-hand, and nothing even remotely close to a bad frame. This is a film that not only enthralls and thrills, but also sticks in the mind like few films can and carries real, undeniable meaning. I suppose you could call that a recommendation.

**** (out of four)

“Drive:” rated R. 100 minutes.

Elliott Miller reviews films for Digitale Stories and for Cardinal Newman High School’s Arts and Literary Magazine. To see past reviews, click on “Elliott Miller on Film.”