Ryan Gosling may have started 2011 as ‘the guy from The Notebook‘, but by the end of the year (if not already), that Nicholas Sparks sap-fest will be far back in his rearview mirror.

Things got rolling in July with his stellar turn in Crazy, Stupid, Love, and he’s finishing the year with the lead in next month’s The Ides of March, the already Oscar contender from George Clooney. In the meantime we have Drive, a slow-burn of a crime thriller anchored by Gosling’s fierce, quiet portrayal of a stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman.

Restraint is the key to Drive‘s success (and it’s hugely successful). The ‘action’ gets going with Gosling’s anonymous driver providing getaway services for two thugs knocking off an electronics store. When his car is spotted by the cops, he doesn’t spend 10 minutes speeding through the streets, leaving a trail of explosions and mayhem in his wake; he plays a quiet game of cat and mouse, and his speedometer barely goes above 30. It’s a brilliant (and novel) start to a brilliant movie.

From there, Driver befriends his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a mousy single mother whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is due to get out of jail soon. When he does come home, owing thousands of dollars in protection money, Driver (only out of concern for Irene and her son) offers to help Standard rob a pawn shop.

Of course nothing goes as planned, and everyone involved, including two mob bosses played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, are set on a collision course which we all know will only end badly and violently.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) channels Quentin Tarantino and Miami Vice-era Michael Mann equally, putting together a thriller that’s as gripping as anything to hit screens this year, including last week’s Contagion. Drive is powerful and effective not because of action, but because of the lack of it; the fewer words spoken and the fewer sudden moves made, the greater the tension. And Drive is as tense as they come.

Gosling’s quiet performance (he barely says 20 words over the course of the film’s 100 minutes) is instantly one of the more memorable turns this year. Perpetually gnawing on a toothpick and staring through whoever he’s near, he makes every word and every gesture count. Mulligan is likewise brilliant, adding yet another dimension to what’s already one of the more diverse resumes in Hollywood today.

If there’s a gripe to be had with Drive it’s the casting of Perlman and Brooks as the bad guys. Perlman comes off as little more than a buffoon (more the script’s fault than his own), and Brooks? Well, picture Tom Hanks as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, and you’d be in the right ballpark.

Despite that, though, Drive still fires on all cylinders… a completely engrossing, absolutely mesmerizing paean to that old line about speaking softly but carrying a big stick.

4.5/5 stars