'Drive' (2011)/Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn/Grade: A+
Ryan Gosling goes on the offense in the name of love in my all-time favorite crime drama.
Okay, so, I love crime dramas. I love Ryan Gosling. And this film was quite the stellar introduction to the latter! Based on a novel of the same name by James Tallis, it follows The Driver (Gosling), a Man-With-No-Name-type character who, by day, works as a mechanic for an auto parts shop, stunt drives for movies part-time, and moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals. After falling in love with his (married) next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), Driver takes it upon himself to aid her ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac) in clearing his name with some unsavory folk whose dirty work got Standard imprisoned. When the heist goes unexpectedly wrong, Driver finds himself in deep with the wrong people, leading to irreversible consequences for his own life.
This premise is not super original, but what really made it leap out at me at the time- what still makes it stand out now- was its striking craftsmanship, style, and subtle performances. Ryan Gosling's performance really showed me how much more effective facial expressions and body language can be at conveying a character's internal journey than dialogue. Additionally, Albert Brooks, known for his more comedic roles like in Finding Nemo (2003), stood out big-time as Bernie Rose, the movie's surprisingly complex antagonist. Usually in pictures like this, the bad guys are incredibly one-dimensional, but Rose was much more of a fleshed-out human being, and similar to The Driver in a crucial way, which allowed Brooks to flex his dramatic chops masterfully.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn's style also lent itself to making this film unique to its genre. From the hyper-precise attention to detail (I particularly loved a close-up of Gosling's golden-scorpion jacket), to the sudden and brutal bursts of violence, and a reliance on silence to make the most dramatic moments land, I couldn't look away. This was aided by Newton Thomas Sigel's (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) gorgeously immaculate cinematography.
I also was inexorably drawn in by composer Cliff Martinez's magnificent score. While he would go on to do even more incredible work for Refn on Only God Forgives (2013) and The Neon Demon (2016), this was an exemplary intro to his music. The most evocative and powerful pieces included 'My Name on a Car' and 'I Drive'.
If I were to introduce someone to Ryan Gosling, this would undoubtedly be my first choice. It left an everlasting impact on me as a kid, and it will continue to be one of my favorite movies for the rest of my life.