(CNN) -- Ryan Gosling's very good year shifts into high gear in "Drive", a lean, mean crime thriller that wowed the crowds at the Toronto International Film Festival last week and goes nationwide Friday.
Gosling, who also headlined George Clooney's "The Ides of March" at TIFF and who is coming off the sleeper hit "Crazy Stupid Love," looks like an old-time movie star here in an iconic role that in another time might have gone to Steve McQueen or Paul Newman.
How iconic? The part doesn't even come with a name -- he's listed simply as "Driver" -- which is appropriate for someone content to be defined by his actions. Driver is a mechanic, part-time stuntman, not to mention the best getaway guy money can buy. "I give you five minutes," he warns his clients. "A minute more, and you're on your own."
We've seen this strong, silent type many times before: the career criminal who has elevated his craft into a personal credo. But from the movie's sensationally stylish opening sequence -- a close-up of Gosling sliding through the hot L.A. night -- this is someone we can't pull our eyes away from. He's an enigmatic figure, but smarter and more sensitive than we might expect.
The first getaway -- cannily leaning on the brakes, emphasizing calculation over burning rubber -- is a superbly calibrated celluloid strip, pulsing with the ever-present danger of apprehension or collision, (not to mention Cliff Martinez's '80s inflected synth-pop score). We can only admire the dexterity with which the Driver weaves his way through the backstreets of the concrete jungle.
But there is another side to this man and this movie: a compassion that blossoms in his dealings with his neighbor, a single mom played by Carey Mulligan, and her young son. It's partly a physical attraction, sure, but it's also explicitly paternal. it's a yearning for the kind of intimacy and emotional connection he denies himself in his professional life. Inevitably, in the neo-noir universe of pulp thrillers, the girl comes with a heavy price: in this case, a no-account husband fresh out of prison and trailing debts he can't pay.
Still, the love story is not drowned out by the thriller, and when director Nicolas Winding Refn told a TIFF audience that this was his John Hughes movie, his "Pretty in Pink", he wasn't being facetious -- at least not entirely. The movie's central scene is a passionate embrace immediately preceding a savage beating, a counterpoint that crystallizes everything that has become unstable and precarious in this man's life.
A Dane who studied film in New York, Refn is a textbook example of someone who has built a reputation on the festival circuit. If you're not averse to extreme violence, you'll want to check out his "Pusher" trilogy as well as "Bronson," featuring a breakout performance by "Warrior" and "Dark Knight Rising" star Tom Hardy.
(In the interests of full-disclosure, 10 years ago he also contributed a few lines to a book I wrote about the U.S. independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, though our paths haven't crossed since.)
His filmmaking has tremendous economy and verve. Hossein Amini's screenplay is like a hot rod stripped to its bare bones, there's not a single extraneous line. Yet Refn unerringly finds the emotional beats between the lines, the looks and glances that make this hard-boiled story sting.
Impeccably cast -- with Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman ripping into a gallery of lowlifes worthy of Elmore Leonard -- and photographed in narcotic shades of noir and disco pink by Newton Thomas Sigel, "Drive" is an excitingly febrile ride, at least the equal of such modern-day classics as "Out of Sight" and "Heat".
Whether it's also on a par with "Sixteen Candles" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" I will leave you to judge, but this slick, shockingly combustible and deeply romantic dream picture is definitely some kind of wonderful.