DRIVE just about drove me crazy.  I was so driven to distraction after seeing it– I nearly drove off the road. This is one of the best films I’ve experienced all year, an existential action thriller–To Drive, is To Be– and  it should drive its leading man Ryan Gosling straight to the Oscars. The movie took hold of me instantly and just didn’t let up– I’m still thinking about it days later.

Gosling is extraordinary in the part of a loner  who is never named, and whose modus operandi is driving.  He repackages that skill in a variety of ways,  all of them dangerous. He lives in two worlds– real and unreal, but is anchored nowhere. He’s an actor– a stunt man who lives on the edge feigning car crashes in the movies. He also enacts that part in real life as a getaway driver who eventually is pulled into a heist that gets away from him. Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn’s control is palpable; he grips us from the opening frame, then tightens his hold in a masterful sequence, where the driver smoothly evades the cops as he twists his way through the city’s shadowy grid; every move he makes is as meticulously calibrated as the engines the driver also builds.

There are long stretches of silence interrupted by vicious scenes of violence. The film’s haunting score pulses through the movie–think AMERICAN GIGOLO or SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER– and saturates the atmosphere; the driver keeps moving, unable to make permanent connections. Who is he? Why? There’s a quiet scene between the driver and the young son of a woman (Carey Mulligan) he is trying to protect. They watch cartoons together, and the driver asks the boy how he knows who the bad guy is. It’s about as simple and loaded a conversation as I’ve ever heard in a film.

Gosling uses his considerable arsenal of talents to extraordinary effect. His stillness creates a vacuum that pulls all our focus–it’s as if the screen might implode. He shifts from  dead calm to primitive rage in a nanosecond– all without a word. His silences rank right up there with Garbo’s and Brando’s and DeNiro’s. And the film allows huge stretches of nothing– no dialogue, no music, no sound, no movement– as if to emphasize the endless void unable to be filled.

There are other notable performances– the most startling delivered by comic actor Albert Brooks, who will scare the hell out of you as a shady business man; he oozes menace.  Bryan Cranston does complex work as a desperate– bordering on pathetic– auto repair shop owner who has suffered at his hands. And there’s Christina Hendricks as a gangster’s moll (better cast here than in I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT) whose beautiful face is armored with the cheap gleam of too much makeup.

See DRIVE– but be forewarned– it’s a brutally violent, deeply disturbing film. You don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to, but if you sit down in the dark and start to watch, you won’t be able to look away.