Posted September 25, 2011 by William Dunmyer in Top-Rated

Drive: Best American Film of 2011

“Drive,” from Danish-American filmmaker Nicolas Refn, is a spectacularly creative, gorgeously filmed, brilliantly acted near-masterpiece of neo-noir. Finally, an English-language film in 2011 that gives one goosebumps.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that the director has been known up to now as a purveyor of silly exploitation cinema. Imagine a director making “Conan the Barbarian” one year and “The Hours” the next. That’s the kind of hairpin turn that Refn has pulled off. Typically a filmmaker is either an art director or a genre director. Refn refuses to choose between them, which is thrilling.

In this sense, Refn calls to mind Quentin Tarantino. But whereas Tarantino seems mostly to be having goofy fun, Refn is dark and heavy.

“Drive” is set in Los Angeles, capturing the dark underbelly of that infinitely interesting city. The penetration into the heart of L.A. is reminiscent of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” a film that might have been to some degree a model for “Drive.” The similarity in the titles is perhaps deliberate. Seeing the two films at a late-night double feature in Los Angeles would no doubt be dazzling. After the screening, one could drive through L.A. in a convertible in the dead of night, drinking in the city’s mysterious power. Cinephile paradise. (I am one of the rare New Yorkers who has a great appreciation for L.A.)

In “Drive,” Ryan Gosling plays a man who by day works in the movies as a stunt driver and by night works as a getaway driver for big-time criminals. In the film’s gripping opening sequence, we watch as Gosling’s character struggles to elude police when a heist unravels. Refn is uniquely able to capture danger and make the audience feel it in their bones.

The man falls for his neighbor (played with deep, quiet feeling by Carey Mulligan). She is raising her five-year-old son on her own while her husband finishes a prison sentence. One of the tenderest aspects of the film is the relationship that builds between Gosling’s character and the boy. Refn films this beautifully.

A secret to the film’s success is how well it captures the vulnerability of the boy and the strong protective feelings triggered in Gosling’s character. I was shaken on several occasions contemplating the fate of this boy and wanting to protect him myself. I’m sure every man in the audience will feel his fatherly heartstrings tugged in this way.

Things become very complicated when the boy’s Dad gets out of prison and comes home. An even more difficult round of complications ensues when Gosling and the ex-con end up in a heist together, which then ends tragically and with a mysterious double-cross. The second half of the film centers on Gosling’s trying to get to the root of the double-cross. But his biggest concern is protecting the boy and his mother, who become endangered.

The kingpins behind the double-cross are ruthless (one of them is spectacularly well played by Albert Brooks), and Refn pulls no punches in the depiction of their ferocity. The film becomes in the end ultra-violent. At times, the violence goes over the top, giving the film a cartoon-ish aspect. But for the most part, the film stays grounded to tell its brutal, tragic story.

Predictions: “Drive” will score a Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nomination and win at least one of them. “Drive” will also become a classic, watched over and over for decades. In fact, I think it will become a touchstone, defining 2011 in many people’s memories. You will be telling your grandchildren that you saw “Drive” in its original release. They will find this very cool.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.