The opening sequence of Drive is the most exciting beginning of any film so far this year. When it’s over you’re glad because you can breathe again. While you recover from the emotional high jolted at you from the screen—and from the speakers, too, thanks to the pulsing, electrifying soundtrack (much of it composed by former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez)—you wonder, can the rest of the film be this good? Yes, that good and more—suspenseful, moody, and bizarrely poignant. Danish-born director Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) gives Drive its masterful trajectory, straight down the line to its inevitable Euro-ambiguous ending. But the path is riddled with shocking potholes—be warned, the film is not for everyone.

Ryan Gosling—lean, clean-cut, preternaturally quiet, a toothpick perched his mouth, a satin jacket embroidered with a gold scorpion on its back—is Driver. He works at a local garage owned by his mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who is trying to convince slimy impresarios, Bernie Rose (Albert Books) and Nino (Ron Perlman) to invest in the young man’s racing career. He’s also a Hollywood stunt driver who can perform any number of impossible feats in one take. At night, Driver moonlights as a wheelman for local criminals.

Driver explains his rules to his clients. “If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun… I drive.”

In his 1973 Chevy Malibu, Driver arrives at the designated heist, a warehouse in downtown L.A.. He starts his stopwatch. Shots ring out. A masked robber runs to the back seat of the car and flings in a bag of money. Where the hell is his partner? From the police scanner Driver knows a burglar alarm is bringing the police. No time to spare. After the second man finally runs out, Driver catapults into escape mode. The entire scene is shot from inside the car because this movie is about driving, not car crashes. No one talks.

As if he were guiding a stealth bomber, Gosling eases the Malibu through L.A.’s neon-lit streets. Slow down, speed up, elude the helicopter searchlight, mislead the screaming black-and-whites, hide behind a semi, lay low in the shadows, reverse course, sneak into alleyways, careen into an underground parking lot filled with a crowd of squealing concert goers—and disappear. Whew!

A neighbor, Irene (the beguiling Carey Mulligan) and her adorable son Benicio enter Driver’s narrow universe and lighten his heart. Then her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), comes home from prison, bringing with him overwhelming protection debts. Driver offers to help Standard and his partner Blanche (Christina Hendricks) in what they are told is a simple pawnshop robbery. But they are double-crossed. The East Coast mob was using the pawnshop as a cover and they want their million dollars back. To make sure Driver gets the message, mob goons blow Blanche away. Unless Driver can eliminate all the threats, Irene and Benicio will be next in the crosshairs.

For a man who doesn’t own a gun, Driver sure knows how to use one. As well as his fists, a hammer, a knife, a razor, his car and whatever other weapons come within reach. On his journey from self-absorbed loner to take-no-prisoners savior, Gosling gives a haunting, star class performance. The violence is sudden and sickening, and once started it seems to never end, but it is integral to the story, not gratuitous. The question remains though—does Driver mete out justice or cheat it? Even with all its creative maturity, Drive doesn’t offer an answer.

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