Drive tells the story of an unnamed man (Ryan Gosling) who works in a garage and as a stunt driver for films, but makes his real money by night as a getaway driver for hire. His life becomes complicated when he strikes up a relationship with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), especially after her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns home from serving time in prison.
The film's success is pretty comprehensive; there is no one element that stands out as significantly lacking. Nicolas Winding Refn's direction is slick, polished and confident throughout; nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the film's pre-credits sequence. Winding Refn makes brilliant use of light and dark as Gosling's driver makes his way expertly through night-time Los Angeles, knowing exactly what to do and when to do it to evade the authorities. The tense and moody atmosphere is created palpably through Winding Refn's choice of camera angles and colour palette, producing one of the most visually and cerebrally impressive opening sequences I can remember seeing in a film for some time.
The script is sparse, even minimalist at times, but is a masterclass in how to use a little to do a lot. Hossein Amini's screenplay constantly feels like a powder keg ready to explode through the characters' actions and voices, but at the same time is crafted with restraint meaning that when the action is manifested, often graphically, it packs the intended knockout blow.
It takes a strong cast to tell a story with no dialogue for minutes at a time, and Drive doesn't disappoint in this area either. The performances are excellent across the board, to the point that you wish that the more minor characters, such as Isaac's Standard or Christina Hendricks' Blanche, had more screen time simply to allow more opportunities to appreciate their performances.
This is Gosling's film, however. His performance as the unnamed driver is intoxicating, evoking classic performances from cinematic greats such as McQueen and Eastwood, whilst at the same time creating a modern and authentic character struggling with his desire to do good and his aptitude for activities caught somewhere between the immoral and the amoral. Gosling's performance smoulders under the surface expertly for the majority of the film, unleashing a shocking vibrance when he shows what his character is truly capable of, and becoming more and more violent as he sinks deeper and deeper into the criminal realm.
Finding fault with Drive is tricky. The film is purposefully and confidently slow-paced, and I only found it slightly too slow at points during the middle act as this is where the narrative progresses the least as character development takes priority. But from the opening sequence to the final scenes, Drive is a cinematic joy to behold. It's rare to experience a film so confident in what it wants to achieve, and so expertly crafted both in front of and behind the camera. Whilst not always an easy watch due the uncompromising violence depicted at times - almost certainly what kept the Oscar nominations at bay - this is undoubtedly one of the finest films of 2011.