Ryan Gosling’s minimalist car-chase movie is painfully suspenseful.

Ryan Gosling in Drive 

Drive (FilmDistrict *), the eighth film by the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, enters the viewer like a sharp unseen blade. The rate at which this compact, masterful thriller ramps up in intensity is quick but stealthy. You’re just starting to groove on its understated postmodern style when it shivs you between the ribs.

A minimalist car-chase movie, Drive somehow manages not to feel like a string of clichés torn from the earlier movies it references with a grave tenderness. Refn channels Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, and Jean-Pierre Melville (while his captivating lead actor, Ryan Gosling, channels Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, and Steve McQueen). But what the two create together is something entirely distinct: an homage that’s not a cheeky pastiche a la Tarantino, but a sincerely poetic gesture toward creating something like a neo-Neo-noir. The first line, “There are 100,000 streets in this city,” might have come straight from a Paul Schrader script (the screenplay is by Hossein Amini). Though both highly stylized and highly stylish, Drive isn’t hurting for substance. It has rich, complex characters (with one exception to be discussed below) and a storyline that’s both emotionally engaging and almost sickeningly suspenseful.

Never named in the film (in the credits, he’s listed as “Driver”), Gosling’s character is a solitary young man whose power derives from his very reserve. A Hollywood stunt driver by day, he also works part-time in the garage of an old friend, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who soups cars up so Driver can use them to assist in small-time heists. Driver doesn’t carry a gun, participate in the robbery or ask any questions: He just drives, and with great skill, as we learn in a slam-bang cold open. After picking up two hoods at their crime scene, he eludes the cops in a cat-and-mouse game so cleverly underplayed that it barely qualifies as a chase. (One of Driver’s key moves is to douse the lights and pull into a parking space at the last possible second.)

Driver’s boss Shannon is the smallest of small-time crooks, but he works for a pair of menacing Jewish gangsters, Bernie and Nino (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman), who own a major piece of the city’s crime business. Shannon wants to launch his talented protégé as a race driver, and he convinces Bernie to invest in a fixer-upper stock car, to Nino’s highly profane amusement. Meanwhile, Driver pursues a chaste flirtation with his apartment neighbor, a young mother named Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband (Oscar Isaac) is dangerously close to getting out of jail.

Just how the paths of Driver and his neighbors will intersect with those of Bernie, Nino, and their cohorts (including an unlucky moll played by Christina Hendricks) should be left for the movie to unfold, since the inexorably tightening crime plot is one of its chief pleasures. Suffice it to say that Driver has some surprises up the sleeve of his silver, scorpion-emblazoned jacket (which grows increasingly bloodstained as the film goes on). He’s loyal to a fault, surprisingly gentle with Irene and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), but prone to sudden acts of cold-blooded brutality. The movie’s most difficult-to-watch scene is also its most virtuoso: Refn slows down time to make a four-floor elevator ride contain at least three movies’ worth of romance, suspense, and horror.

Driver underperforms only in the smallest of ways. Mulligan’s character, while wonderfully played, could have been fleshed out better by the script: Driver is more complex than your average vigilante hero, but Irene is essentially a stock damsel in distress. And the ‘80s-style, synth-fueled score by Cliff Martinez, while effective, felt too ubiquitous—a little more silence would have been in keeping with the movie’s mood of grim austerity.

Ryan Gosling’s incarnation of the hauntingly lonely Driver is a beautifully realized, complete performance. He understands not just the psychology of the character, but how he fits into the tone and pacing of the film as a whole; he and Refn seem to be partnering as director and actor, the way Laura Dern partners with David Lynch or Julianne Moore with Todd Haynes. I’ve read that Gosling first approached Refn, gave him the James Sallis novel this is based on and proposed turning it into a film. If true, this indicates two promising things about Gosling’s future: He has both good taste and a keen sense of what projects he should take on as an actor. Here, this almost excessively beautiful performer is in complete control of his own considerable magnetism. In a role that could have flattered his vanity and allowed for all manner of ostentatious brooding, Gosling instead quietly dives into the emotional black hole at Driver’s center, and takes us along for the ride.

Correction, Sept. 16, 2011: The article originally named The Weinstein Co. as the production company for the film. (Return to the corrected sentence.)