Set between the neon lights of Hollywood and the dark shadows of L.A., Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn adds an almost comic book-stark contrast between the glitzy home of the stars and the gritty underworld of crime. He also gives the film an 80s/Miami Vice vibe, splashing the credits with pink and pumping up the synth-heavy soundtrack to accentuate each emotionally thrilling moment before ultimately shattering violence.
While the spot-on cinematography and surreal plot deserve a ton of credit, the way the cast animates the characters is the true masterpiece. Ron Perlman is solid in his usual tough cookie role as wannabe gangster Nino and Bryan Cranston plays the Driver's constantly SOL mechanic mentor Shannon with a perfect weight.
The usually comical Albert Brooks forays into villainy, posing as the slimy and sinister Bernie Rose. It's would seem hard to take Brooks seriously in the role, but the way he reserves his brutality to small, cold doses is perfectly placed.
Carey Mulligan, meanwhile, plays Irene, the Driver's neighbor and love interest, with equal parts mousey, wide-eyed naivitey and unwavering strength. Pay attention to a particular scene in an apartment elevator where her mere facial reactions speak louder than any line could have.
Now for the real scene stealer: Ryan Gosling. He's received a wealth of praise for his past roles, but this might be the performance that totally sets him apart. Playing the unnamed protagonist (usually referred to as "The Driver" or "Kid"), Gosling limits himself to only speaking where absolutely neccesary. His expressions, glares, and clenched fists, however, unleash all the smoldering passion, toughness, and grit that lie beneath his silent exterior.
The Driver builds himself into a routine lifestyle, getting cozy with Irene and her young son Benicio. That is, until Irene's husband Standard comes home, a job goes wrong, and The Driver looks to take care of things his own uniquely violent way. It all spirals to a bloody climax and, while I don't want to give anything away, the movie ends right where it begins: in the driver's seat.
I don't like throwing the word masterpiece around too much, but this film might be an appropriate time to bust it out. Exuding a vibe of a more dreamy, but less quirky Pulp Fiction, it's already clear that people will be examining, studying, and replicating Drive's style for years to come.