There is no safer feeling than driving alone at night. You have the illusion of control, the freedom of speed, and the assurance (not even half true) that if you make a mistake, only you will have to pay the violent fine. Drive, the luxurious new L.A. noir from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, is the most brutally antisocial movie of the year. It is also the most romantic—but it is primarily spellbound by the romance of isolation. It is about being very good at a solitary pursuit, and valuing another person enough to allow her a glimpse of what you do, only to realize that letting her in exposes her to terrible danger.
Writing this out, I realize it sounds like a lot of macho, self-pitying poppycock. And for a movie about standing—or, rather, sitting—alone, Drive has attracted a torrent of intoxicated hosannas at each festival screening. But I confess I also fell for it, hard. It engrossed and moved me like no other picture I've seen this year. And I have a sliver of justification: The entire history of noir, stretching back to The Maltese Falcon through Drive's obvious influences like Walter Hill's The Driver and Michael Mann's Thief, is a lot of macho, self-pitying poppycock. That does not diminish the power of those movies. If Drive, a deliberate throwback, belongs in their company, it is because it is unreservedly committed to the decadent masochism of its fantasy.
It is also exhilarating filmmaking, from soup to swollen nuts. Drive conclusively establishes Winding Refn as a director whose every work must be seen. It contains half a dozen white-knuckle action sequences—starting with a robbery getaway timed to the final buzzer of an L.A. Clippers game—yet its closest relative is the lightheaded, restrained eroticism of Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. In this context, the relentless carnage of Drive's second half makes a sick kind of sense: It is a movie about men who only know how to show loyalty and care by staving in the skulls of other men. Winding Refn's last film, Valhalla Rising, featured vikings disemboweling each other by hand, and the characters here are not much more civilized, though they do have more cosmopolitan surroundings, smearing each other across some handsomely paneled elevator interiors. It is some kind of advancement, I suppose, that while the characters speak after very long pauses, they have moved past grunts.
When boy meets boy in Drive, homicide is inevitable. But first boy meets girl. The boy is Ryan Gosling, a stunt-car driver with illegal sidelines and a stockpile of toothpicks. The girl is Carey Mulligan, a waitress with a young son (Kaden Leos) and a husband (Oscar Isaac) about to get out of jail. Their courtship is as much an act of protection as desire. Both actors do astounding work with silent glances; it would not be fair to call their performances subtle, but they are perfectly pitched to a movie where everything but their love—and mutual devotion to her child—is disposable.
The collateral damage includes Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman—great faces deployed in delightful ways. At the edges of the film lurks Albert Brooks: His chummy but remorseless mobster is a variation on all his comedic characters who used menschiness to hide a petty soul. I can't escape the nagging feeling that Drive does the same thing, that its ravishing look and lonesome honor are a ruse to to justify an inner vacuum of human decency. It raises the question, finally, of whether a great movie has to be a moral movie. Is it enough that it is true to its own code? What if that code is ultimately tribal and barbaric? Drive took me where I wanted to go, and it is frightening how euphoric I felt speeding into darkness.
95 SEE IT: Drive is rated R. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinetopia, Cornelius, Pioneer Place, Cinema 99, Bridgeport, City Center, Division, Evergreen, Hilltop, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Sandy and St. Johns Twin.