Drive is a movie of two halves; Refn first introduces the characters and gives us a premise. This is done in an unusual way; despite the fanfare surrounding the film from critics, I was skeptical, and the appearance of a love interest with a husband in jail, paired with a bad boy with a heart of gold, gave me an awful feeling that we were heading down the road of a 'don't you'll end up in prison just like my husband' ... 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do' pre-fabricated plot. Before the halfway point, it's not a spoiler to write, this ploy is swerves sharply to the left. I feel this was Refn's intention, to make us feel like we knew what we were about to see, and then quickly deny us that with scenes of palpable tension, hiding that other trite plot under a bridge, and I love that.
Both the dialogue and the acting give the characters depth, and not one actor let the ensemble down. There are three I'd like to talk about in greater detail. Ryan Gosling, who I usually find wooden and lifeless, is surprisingly excellent. I've never liked him in anything he's done, and I now see that he's best when he's underacting. Refn uses a trick of having Gosling use almost no words, but have the camera follow him around at a constant distance (perhaps most noticeably in a scene in a supermarket). What this achieves is a feeling that there is some sort of psychosis bubbling underneath his skin, and this characterisation instantly reminded me of Peter Stormare's "Gaear" from Fargo (AKA the guy who put the other guy in the wood-chipper). There's nothing remarkable about the acting talent of Peter Stormare, but by underacting the part, we are given a sense of something darker and more monstrous beneath his skin, and such is the case with Gosling's nameless 'Driver' character. I don't think there was any accident in this, because Bryan Cranston gives an excellent performance which shows precisely the same type of nervous desperation shown by William H. Macy's "Jerry Lundergaard", also from Fargo. The two films might make for an interesting double bill.
Thirdly and deserving a paragraph all to itself is the appearance of Albert Brooks as a gritty gangster--that's Albert Brooks, who mostly plays a sort of stereotyped Jewish whining character in fluffy comedies, here playing a knife-obsessed gangster killer, and does so credibly and engagingly.
So the film boils down to a contest between Albert Brook's knife skills, and Ryan Gosling's driving ability: that reads awful on paper, but this film is executed just so well.
There is a certain concentration on violence in the latter half which I found unnecessary, but there is a dissonance between the funky 1980's electro-pop soundtrack which works incredibly well with that violence. The gear change from 3rd to 5th works so for the combination of both a) Refn having established that anything could happen, it is an unpredictable film, and because of the visuals, characters, dialogue and story to that plot, we are invested in seeing how it plays out, and b) the romantic subplot it treated artfully. There's a flash of Casablanca somewhere here, and that flash is a very, very welcome. And the ending: there is a right way to end a film, and a wrong way. Drive is an excellent example of the right way.
It's a pity Drive was largely snubbed at the Academy awards, receiving only a single nomination for a minor technical category, as I feel it was amongst the best to hit the big screen in 2011. In my 'Star Ratings System' guide I make specific mention of the need for synergy of a film's elements in order to climb into the four star category, I feel that synergy is exemplified by Drive. Drive lacks the innovation to make five stars, but it deserves every star I've given it on the road trip there.