Ryan Gosling is neither what you’d expect given the premise nor the pedigree of the director.

Drive is Nicholas Winding Refn’s first American movie and also the first one he did not also write. It’s an adaptation of a book I’m unfamiliar with. The lean, tough screenplay was written by a fella named Hossein Amini. I hope Amini goes on to deliver more work like this in the future as Drive is exactly the kind of audience-trusting script the world needs more of. The movie is light on dialogue, exposition, and scope and big on expression, tone, and an unexpectedly touching emotional core.

The basic premise is familiar if you’ve ever seen a Michael Mann movie. A laconic, disciplined man who lives a life of violence gets involved with a woman, and thus the world outside his own tightly-controlled existence, and brings on a heap of tragedy for himself. Drive owes a lot to the Mann oeuvre, particularly Thief, Heat, and Public Enemies. You will, however, find more similarities in the older films as Drive is a bit of a throwback to the late 70’s or early 80’s. The more bold strokes of stylization echo with nostalgia while flirting with an audience that will probably not be very familiar with the movies that are its brethren. This will make some people feel like Drive is more fresh than it is. It’s a worthy illusion, to be honest, since Refn is completely in control of how to texture his film without coasting on a retro style. In spite of its utter leanness, Drive is definitely a film with a lot of texture.

Bryan Cranston appears again in another of 2011’s best films. You go, Walter White.

A lot of that texture is in the performances. Refn gets great work out of his cast. Up til now, I’ve only seen his Danish stuff (and Valhalla Rising which was English-language but not exactly an American movie) but this bears out here in a cast populated with recognizable people. I always knew Gosling was good. And no, I didn’t find that out when he pretended to love a mannequin in Lars and the Real Girl which is a shitty movie in spite of him. For me, Gosling’s skills go back to The Believer, an underseen movie in which he plays a totally intense proto-Derek Vinyard (you can’t tell me American History X doesn’t owe that movie a peach or five). Some people will have already been impressed by him recently in Blue Valentine. Right on, cuz he’s the real deal.

Here, Gosling plays a guy who is so tightly controlled that even a smile or flexing of the eyebrows speaks volumes. Every pause has tension in it, not all of it the bad kind, and you find yourself hanging on every one of those pauses to see what he’s going to do. He is what critics often call “electrifying” or ‘magnetic” in this movie, and that is exactly the quality needed in what is going to seem like a slow burn for a lot of people.

Opposite Gosling is Carey Mulligan. Her Irene is surprisingly similar, a woman who betrays little of herself in words but gives up more and more as she spends more time with the driver. Her attraction for him is especially apparent when she watches him with her son. Mulligan is an actress who is getting a lot of major roles and she is knocking them out of the park. After Never Let Me Go, I get why she’s a big deal though I never did see An Education which is the movie I believe put her on the map.

Between these two, the movie builds up a love story that is at once very believable and also remote from what we might expect. The trouble is, Irene is married and the guy she’s married too is not such a bad guy though he has fallen in with some. His existence keeps Irene and the driver’s relationship completely platonic until Standard, the husband (another great little scuzzy role for Oscar Isaac), gets out of prison… which is also the catalyst for everything that goes wrong.

Because so much of the story of the romance between the driver and Irene is told through looks, shy smiles, tiny gestures, and other subtle moments here and there, I call it a great love story for that it gets all their connection across with a minimal, but not light, touch. Lesser movies do this work by creating elaborate subplots and pitting the protagonists against symbolic obstacles. Drive is straight-faced and uncompromising. From almost first sight, the driver is attracted to Irene and that’s that. More is made out of why she likes him back, which given his cool, controlled exterior is sort of more necessary.

The kiss, when it finally comes, is a truly great moment wrapped up in one of the most exciting and, from a film nerd perspective, amazing sequences in the film.

Those who are expecting Drive to be a balls-to-the wall action movie are going to be in for a bit of a surprise. I hope it ends up being a pleasant one, but in case you’re set up in such a way where it won’t be (and you’re even reading this) I will go ahead and tell you that Drive is fairly light on the action. What action and violence are present is actually fairly stripped down, brutal, and brief. This comes out of a commitment to realism that also recalls some of those earlier, similar films I mentioned above. The texture of the violence is high on gore and low on visceral thrill. It’s more akin to Cronenberg’s recent films A History of Violence and Eastern Promises than Mann’s more operatic and appealing sense of violence. The first half of Drive is pretty much setup for the moment when the film shifts into the driver desperately trying to protect Irene and her son from the complications Standard has unwittingly put on all of them.

There are small-time mob bosses (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman) who make up for it in viciousness, double-crosses, a million dollars, and the shadowy threat of the entire East-Coast Italian crime syndicate thrown into the mix here. It makes for a lot of complications. Part of the fun of the movie is seeing if Gosling’s character is as tough as he acts. He’s certainly got the driving part down, but it isn’t until fairly late in the game that we learn just how tough (and ruthless) he can really be. The movie doesn’t tell us how he got like this, where he comes from, etc. He’s a mystery and he stays that way. Which is the perfect choice. Too many movies err on the side of over-explaining everything. Drive is one where the focus is resolutely on the immediacy of its small story.

This is about the time that everything goes pear-shaped.

I should take some time to talk about the soundtrack. Cliff Martinez is responsible, at least in terms of the credits given, for what is going to be one of the most surprising parts about an already surprising movie. The soundtrack is made of old school synth stuff and some pretty counter-intuitive songs that work for the movie anyway. They’re pop songs with female vocalists and I have a very hard time coming up with some kind of frame of reference for them. They are here, though, and used perfectly to emphasize the romantic nature of both the movie’s story, its central character, and probably the overall tone and texture of the whole shebang on a thematic level. There’s a sort of Tarantino feel here. To explain that, Tarantino’s song choices tend to be similarly pop-inspired and offbeat but where he’s creates a collage, Martinez (and Refn) have chosen something that winds up feeling a bit more singular. That basic distinction also applies to the kind of movie Drive is, if you bothered to compare it to Tarantino’s work which is always bigger, crazier, and more ADD (this is not a bad thing).

A Real Hero by College feat. Electric Youth is probably the standout track, a song that plays twice in the movie and has lyrics that tie thematically to who the driver is. The first time you hear it is when Irene’s attraction to him is reaching its peak. Very soon after this, his true nature as a man as fierce in violence as he is gentle in affection are revealed to her. It isn’t until the very end of the film that we hear it again, playing as Irene gives the audience the sign they’ve been waiting for, that shows she can reconcile that nature with the rest she’s seen of him. It’s a really great use of a song, similar in some ways to how Warrior used The National’s About Today.

The music is a character in the film. If you can’t get into how it juxtaposes with your expectations and with what you’re actually watching, you’re going to have trouble enjoying Drive. I hope, for your sake, this is not the case. Drive is the special kind of pseudo-action movie that only rolls around once every couple of years.

I know I’ve spent a lot more time than usual talking about how Drive is like other films or comparing elements of it to them, or the work of other filmmakers. This is part of why I like Drive so much. It’s the kind of movie that threads together so much of what is a diverse but ultimately connected filmic quilt in such a way that it looks and feels new, authentic, and exciting. It does not feel derivative or like Refn was ripping anyone off to glide on audience familiarity. In other words, Drive is very much a movie for people who fucking love movies and who have taken the time to educate themselves in the subject. It will also appeal to the casual filmgoer, though, as it should.

Inevitably, it’s the bearded guys that get you in shit.