In cinema, water is usually a symbol for life. In John Huston’s 1951 film, “The African Queen,” the river rises to save Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn from a cruel death in the swamps of Africa. In Disney’s 1992 animation classic, “The Lion King,” rain puts out the flames, cleanses the wasteland Scar has made and beckons the herds to return to Pride Rock. Screenwriter Robert Towne turned the metaphor on its head in 1974 with Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.” Water became a source of power around which death occurs. It’s no coincidence that water follows the same metaphor in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” If Chinatown is the granddaddy of Los Angeles neo-noir films, then “Drive” is the latest in this tradition.

Last year’s “Blue Valentine” proved Ryan Gosling a serious actor and this year’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love” proved him a movie star. Later this year, he’ll appear in George Clooney’s, “The Ides of March,” aiming for Oscar glory.

“Drive” finds him acting in the purest form, as he did in “Blue Valentine,” for the character and the script.

“I’ve always wanted to play a superhero,” Ryan Gosling said in an interview with The AV Club.

It’s odd, though, to call his character a “superhero.” The film does seem to explore and play with some superhero tropes, but in a way that varies from tradition. There is no alter-ego with a made-up name — his character is only referred to as “the driver” — but there is a damsel in distress who the driver rescues, played by the excellent Carey Mulligan, who gives her character warmth and a dialed-down sexiness. Her husband is played by the equally good Oscar Isaac, who balances sorrow, anger and regret with a deep pathos that hits the viewer in the gut.

The supporting cast is excellent throughout. Albert Brooks gives one of his best performances in years as a mobster alongside Ron Perlman. Bryan Cranston, of “Breaking Bad” fame, creates a down-on-his-luck character greater than the script offers him. Not that it’s a bad script. Hussein Amini’s adaptation of the James Sallis novel is appropriately respectful yet realizes the potential cinema can offer literary adaptation. The dialogue in the film has a noirish flair, but it’s sparse and offers nothing that cannot be conveyed with action.
Refn’s direction differs from that of 2008’s “Bronson” and 2009’s “Valhalla Rising.” His unwavering eye finds beauty in everything — the streets of nighttime Los Angeles, a race car, the inside of a dingy pizza shop and even a cranium bursting with blood. It’s the latter part that can be difficult to accept, but “Drive” handles violence more maturely than Refn’s previous films.
His previous movies use violence and gore with gratuity, but with a singular view that finds it all awesomely beautiful. “Drive” does the same, but with a tasteful minimalism, thus making them count. These changes have been recognized by the cinematic community as a whole, which is why at this year’s Cannes Film Festival he was awarded with the Best Director Award.

A worthy prize indeed.

Grade: A
Release Date: Sept. 16, 2011
Director: Nicolas Winding RefnCast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Christina Hendricks