Drive begins with a monologue, spoken over the phone, from its titular character, the otherwise nameless “Driver.” In it, he espouses his personal code for his job (which, inbetween stunt-driving gigs for movies, entails getaway driving for thieves). Shortly thereafter, we get a look at him in action, driving the getaway car during a nighttime heist in which he escapes police attention with robotic precision and skill. In this opening sequence, Nicolas Winding Refn establishes a well-explored archetype as the basis for his lead character, and proceeds to spend the next 90-odd minutes dismantling it piece-by-piece, revealing a character that is perfect on the surface but broken underneath.

Gosling fits the character like a glove. He’s a representation of a masculine ideal, with his blonde-haired, blue-eyed good looks and cool, detached demeanor. His character most vividly recalls Le Samouraï‘s Jef Costello, played by Alain Delon as an existential hitman who, like Driver, excelled in his work (which each goes about adhering to a rigid code) but about whom we knew little or nothing personally. Each seems simply to exist in order to fulfill their work, eschewing material pleasure or personal satisfaction. In Jef’s case, a distant wife and a mysterious female pianist seduce him to some extent; in Driver’s case, a cute next-door-neighbor named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son capture his attention. Driver learns that Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is in prison but will be released soon; when he is, it becomes clear that Standard is in danger from criminal associates with whom he has an outstanding debt. (It’s important to note that, though Standard stands in the way of a romantic relationship between Driver and Irene, he’s portrayed as a decent guy in over his head, as opposed to a lowlife element threatening the safety of his wife and son.) In this way, Drive also recalls Shane, in which Alan Ladd plays the titular character as a mysterious gunman who finds himself defending law and order in the wild west. Like Driver, Shane is fond of a married woman and her young son, but takes pains not to intrude on their romance.

Ryan Gosling as Driver in Drive

Driver in his comfort zone.

If Costello, and Shane, could be said to express some measure of existential longing and personal honor that prevents them from allowing their emotions to clutter their outlook, Driver’s emotional state is more difficult to nail down. He seems willing to put himself at great personal risk for little gain, but remains emotionally blank (as opposed to “stoic”) much of the time, often betraying a sense that he is incapable of properly functioning in social situations. He is often hesitant to act, and seems ill at ease, as if he’s working out the proper reaction in his head since they don’t come naturally to him. And unlike Shane or Costello, he’s also prone to the occasional outburst. If the former two carry out their tasks in adherence to their personal nature, Driver allows his tasks – those of a hero – to define his actions.

Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini portray him, above all, as a man who takes solace in his work and takes great pains to exude the image of an heroic archetype. But it’s just that: an image, complete with a “badass” costume (a silk scorpion racing jacket, which comically becomes more and more blood-stained throughout the film, and leather racing gloves), as Driver’s emotionally stunted/disturbed nature and capacity for violence belie any notions of heroism. The film’s defining scene portrays Driver and Irene in an elevator with a hitman, out to kill Driver after a botched robbery in which he partook. Quickly realizing their predicament, Driver takes a moment to debonairly share a kiss with Irene, before disabling the would-be assailant and then, after pausing for a moment, thoughtfully stomping his face in until it’s nothing more than a puddle on the ground. As Irene backs off the elevator, a look of horror on her face, Driver’s face expression remains curiously blank. To disable the attacker is one thing; to brutally murder him is quite another, and in light of their ostensibly platonic relationship, Driver’s action reveal a horrific underside to his character as well as a base inability to gauge social situations.

The film is filled with other archetypal characters, most obviously Bryan Cranston as Shannon, Driver’s employer and confidant, who keeps his distance from most of the film’s dirtiest work but looks on Driver as a surrogate son; and Ron Perlman as a scary Jewish gangster, whose perpetually furrowed brow defines his character as much as anything else. The most noteworthy secondary performance comes from Albert Brooks, as a former movie producer, Bernie Rose, who finances illegal activity (and, as we later learn, participates as well). Brooks’ quick-talking irreverence, which served him so well as a comic actor in the past, makes him a surprisingly weighty and frightening villain, and it’s a revelatory performance from somebody so readily identified as a bumbling, sarcastic schmuck. Drive is, as much as anything, about flipping genre tropes on his head. The hero is emotionally disturbed and violent; the love interest’s criminal husband well-meaning and gregarious; the villain so unassuming on the surface you’d hardly believe it to look at him.

But, as Brooks himself remarks of a dingy race-car early in the film, it’s not what’s on the surface, but what’s inside that counts. The film’s aesthetic – with its pristine digital cinematography, pulsing synth-pop soundtrack, and bare-bones narrative – contribute as much to Drive‘s sense of genre deconstruction, and the portrayal of the film’s protagonist, as anything else, with its polished, impersonal exterior at odds with the film’s brutal portrayal of violence. It’s as lean and airtight as anything I’ve seen in theaters since at least No Country for Old Men, and as assured and unwavering as well. Refn and his collaborators exude confidence in their every decision, and it’s all up on-screen. If its elements are largely borrowed from other films (in addition to the influences of other films on the character of Driver, Drive also recalls the candy-coated nightmare aesthetic and unnerving sense of humor of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and the unflinchingly realistic-yet-concealed violence of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), what the film does with those disparate influences are what make it a masterpiece. It may even be the best film I’ve seen in 2011, and given that this year saw the release of The Tree of Life, as a dyed-in-the-wool Terrence Malick acolyte that’s not something I say lightly.