This is my first movie review. It’s just not something I’ve ever been moved to do. But then some Danish guy by the name of Nicolas Winding Refn came along, made a movie called Drive and everything changed.

This movie came at me out of nowhere. I’d read nothing. Seen nothing more than a 30-second trailer. I expected nothing. I was given almost everything. More, certainly, than almost any other movie. It immediately reminded me of Michael Mann’s Thief, a movie that made quite an impression on me at a very early (perhaps too early) age. Whether intended or not by Refn, I view Drive as an homage to Thief: quiet, spare, beautiful and thoroughly rooted in the 80s, from the music to the fashion.

Drive is some kind of fantastic hybrid: Art-house, film school dissertation wrapped up in a Saturday night hard-boiled noir thriller. Dark and disturbing, it is a modern day fairy tale. It is an experiment in silence. It is positively, unequivocally beautiful, each frame a lasting image.

Beauty is a fragile and tenuous thing – even the most beautiful movie can be undone by overbearing dialogue or a convoluted plot. But Refn, working with screenwriter Hossein Amini, stripped the original novel of most of its dialogue, leaving a powerfully simple skeleton of a script. A fantastic decision.

There is vast silence in Drive, creating scenes of palpable awkwardness and, for the viewer (this viewer at least), not boredom, but a hyper-awareness of time and space (nowhere more evident than in the post-drive, standing-by-the-window scene between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan). This anti-Mamet empty space might, in less skilled hands, come off just as stilted as rapid-fire Mamet speech, but in Refn’s hands, it’s absolutely captivating. Drive is rooted in the moment, each moment, and this pervasive silence reins the movie in to the reality of actual conversation. No prescribed Mamet monologue. Not even a Sorkin sermon.

Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography is stunning. Whether capturing a careening vehicle through a back seat window, the warm intimacy of a child being carried off to sleep, or the graceful slow arc of a car’s path through the LA river, the camera work is artful and meticulous. Inventive camera positioning leads to remarkable perspectives. The movie’s early cat and mouse “car chase” is shot almost entirely from within the car, something I didn’t even notice the first two times around. The driver’s control of the entire act is methodical and absolute. Outside viewpoints or influences are irrelevant.

The elevator scene towards the end of the movie (my favorite scene, and apparently a relatively last-minute addition) is a work of art. In incredibly cramped quarters, the camera choreographs the actors in an elegant dance. The shifting angles, lighting and film speed collaborate to create an agonizing contrast between pure love and vengeful bloodlust.

Serendipitously, Refn snagged Steven Soderbergh’s favorite, Cliff Martinez, to orchestrate the music for Drive. As a huge Soderbergh fan, I’ve been enjoying soundtracks by Martinez ever since The Limey (my favorite movie). Martinez does not disappoint: from the opening credits, evoking Thief’s Tangerine Dream soundscape: electronic, dark and a little bit dirty. His own original compositions provide a subtle accompaniment to the movie, and the inclusion of “Nightcall” and “A Real Hero” (arguably a bit literal, but Refn apparently thought it was just too perfect to pass on) propel the movie forward with great intensity.

Much has been written about Drive, much of it positive, but quite a lot of it negative. In virtually every case, the negative reviews have focused on the movie’s violence.

This is not an apology.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that Drive is gratuitously violent. Refn is a self-proclaimed, wholly unapologetic violence fetishist. It’s what he does. (See Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Or don’t, because they’re both incredibly violent.) And yes, it detracts somewhat from the movie’s greatness, but here’s the thing: it’s still a great movie. I have a theory about why people react so strongly to the violence in Drive. There are plenty of movies that are as or more violent, but few, if any of them lull you into a sense of (relative) comfort for 50+ minutes before unleashing the hounds from hell.

53 minutes, to be exact, is how long Refn spends weaving his Angelino fairy tale of love and longing before the first blood splatters. And oh does it splatter, scene after consecutive scene, in dramatic and explicit fashion, until the very end.

Though clearly too slow for some audiences, Drive’s pacing is perfect. It is a welcome homage to the 1970s thriller that generated tension from the very absence of movement, a style that sadly has been virtually extinguished by the vacuous maelstrom of our pervasive Michael Bay world. Yes, there are car chases. Yes, there are some quick cuts. But overall, it is a movie seemingly focused inward on its own (sometimes bloody) heartbeat, with no need to rely on explosions and shoot-outs to connect with its audience.

Drive’s characters are simple and their motivations pure (albeit ethically compromised). Ryan Gosling’s Driver character has no name. His desire to be human, for the relative normalcy of a regular life, is clear. Carey Mulligan’s Irene is equally straight-forward. She loves her son Benicio. She’s not as convinced about his father, but she sees something special in Driver. The rest of the cast falls into place fairly neatly around them. This is not to say that they are uninteresting: Albert Brooks as an ex-film producer / mobster is mesmerizing. Oscar Isaac as Benicio’s father Standard is quietly wonderful. But they are all relatively clear and uncomplicated.

Woven in and around these characters is a wholly unremarkable plot. Yup. I said it. In broad strokes, there is absolutely nothing new about this tale. Man. Woman. Another man. Conflict. Resolution. It’s been written and shot a hundred times before. And that is the beauty of Drive: a fairy tale, stripped of all its artifice of multi-layered characters and ever-twisting plot, told simply and splendidly, with great power and beauty.