I admit that when I first learned about Drive, I assumed that I’d be seeing it at one of my usual arthouses. Sure, the cast is full of some very talented up-and-comers, but I wouldn’t really call any of them “A-listers” or guaranteed box office draws. The director is highly esteemed among film nerds, but his recognition among the mainstream crowd is slim to non-existent. Additionally, this is a one-off movie that isn’t part of any established franchise, based on a book that no one’s heard of. Hell, the movie’s advertising was practically nil, save only for a single red-band trailer that didn’t hit until two months ago.

This had all the makings of a fringe movie that would fade away after release. Yet just a few weeks ago, something intriguing happened: The movie started getting mainstream attention. It was getting rave critical reviews across the map, positive word-of-mouth spread like wildfire, TV spots started airing, and it was being positioned as a serious awards contender. Suddenly, the movie was coming to multiplexes and everyone knew about it.

That kind of success is extremely rare for arthouse films. Even the best ones can only hope for a couple million at the box office, some fans among the film nerd set, and maybe a few awards nods if they’re lucky. I can’t stress enough just how unusual it is for a smaller movie to come entirely out of nowhere, prove itself to be amazing, and find mainstream success along the way. It doesn’t happen nearly often enough, but it’s great when it happens.

On the surface, this premise is very simple. The main character is a garage mechanic who moonlights as a Hollywood stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night. He falls in love with a woman, he gets involved in a heist gone bad, and he has to go on a killing spree to save himself and his love interest. The movie therefore becomes reliant on the strength of its presentation, and that’s where Refn comes through with style.

First of all, there’s the action. The film contains several fight scenes, and every one benefits from Nicolas Winding Refn’s unique brand of ultraviolence. The editing is a large part of that, showing excessive amounts of blood just long enough to be disturbing, but not so long that it becomes exploitative. The movie also features three or four car chase scenes, every one expertly staged and amazing to watch.

Take the opening car chase, for example. At the start of the film, we see that our unnamed main character is so good at his job because he’s clever about it. Here’s a character who knows when to act casual, when to stop and hide, and when to floor the pedal. This makes for a very refreshing change of pace from the standard adrenaline-fueled speed binges of most cinematic car chases. Additionally, roughly 90 percent of this car chase is seen from inside the car. This means that instead of seeing the robbery in progress, we’re learning what the Driver does to get ready. Instead of watching the pretty car stunts from some disembodied external camera, we’re right there in the passenger seat. Best of all, we see firsthand that this character is impossibly cool under pressure, establishing him as a deceptively tough guy who is not to be messed with. Having said that, Gosling certainly isn’t afraid to look like a monster when the occasion calls for it.

Then we see the Driver in his daytime life, and we learn that he’s a very quiet and withdrawn guy. In fact, it’s almost like he’s living on a separate plane of existence from everyone else. The guy barely says a word until fifteen minutes in. Naturally, that’s when we meet Irene — the new neighbor played by Carey Mulligan — and her son, Benicio.

At this point, I must digress to talk about something else that Refn does extremely well in this film: Suspense. This film has many lengthy moments of absolute silence, devoid of any action, yet the film remains watchable because anything could happen when the other shoe finally drops. A lot of that is due to Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, who have such amazing chemistry that they can make sparks fly off the screen just by looking into each others’ eyes.

The character of the Driver adds a lot to this suspense. After all, he never carries a gun and his compassion for this woman and her son appears to be genuine, but he’s still a criminal. He’s clearly a badass, but it isn’t initially clear just how much mayhem he’s willing or able to cause. We never learn anything about his past, and he doesn’t seem to have any friends or family (with the possible exception of his boss, Shannon, played by Bryan Cranston). Put simply, this character is such an enigma that it’s impossible to tell what he’ll do or why. However, as the film progresses, he becomes easier to root for as his actions become increasingly motivated by good intentions and self-defense. On top of that, Gosling also plays the Driver with a great amount of intellect that’s always hidden behind a cold poker face. Have I made it clear yet that his performance is really damn good?

In point of fact, the cast as a whole is incredible from start to finish. It’s clear that Refn made every possible effort to find the perfect actor for each role, right down to casting porn star Andy San Dimas as an unnamed stripper for all of one shot. Carey Mulligan provides a radiant performance worthy of the film’s catalyst. Bryan Cranston masterfully delivers a character who’s crooked enough to get involved with criminals and stupid enough not to know the trouble he’s getting into, yet likeable enough that the Driver’s friendship with him is understandable. Oscar Isaac takes the sleaze of his Sucker Punch performance and effectively parlays that toward a character who’s trying to move past a history of crime. Christina Hendricks adds a great amount of screen presence to what would otherwise be a background character, Albert Brooks does a surprisingly great job as a charismatic criminal, and Ron Perlman… well, need I say more?

Though the plotting is very well-paced, I do have a few nits to pick. For example, the Driver follows one of the movie’s villains to a strip club, and we don’t get to see how he traced the bad guy there. The Driver then proceeds to kill the bad guy, while so many topless strippers look on without moving a muscle. It just looks weird. Then he tracks down another bad guy, in a car sequence that seems a little too elaborately planned, for someone who didn’t know where the villain’s car would be going. Also, the Driver wears a mask in this sequence. I have no idea why.

Still, these minor little complaints didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the movie as a whole. No, it was the ambiguous ending that made me leave the theater scratching my head. There was something that just didn’t feel right, and I didn’t know what it was. The Driver was never a completely good character, so I wasn’t bothered that he didn’t necessarily get the happiest possible ending. It wasn’t a matter of closure, either, since the subplots were all nicely resolved. Yet something didn’t feel right. Either the film was missing something or I was, and I couldn’t figure out what.

But then I remembered a speech that Oscar Isaac’s character made at the end of the first act and it finally hit me: The entire movie is about second chances. This whole time, the Driver wasn’t just fighting for revenge and for self-defense, he was wiping the slate clean for him and for Irene. Over the course of this movie, the Driver cuts all ties to his former life of crime, while also protecting Irene from the sins of a husband who couldn’t protect his innocent wife and child. Seen through this theme, the ending made a lot more sense, especially where the Driver and Irene were concerned. It made the whole movie more satisfying, really.

There’s no denying that Drive is a phenomenal movie. The script is solid, the visuals are superb, the cast is rock-solid and the theme of redemption beautifully elevates the film without being too overt. As far as I’m concerned, Refn has proven himself beyond any doubt as a powerhouse filmmaker, capable of delivering mature content with intelligence and style. I’ll be severely disappointed if he doesn’t get A-list status and some trophies in very short order. In fact, Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan have been due that kind of attention for a while now, and this film is a clear reminder of why.

Bottom line: Believe the hype. This isn’t a film to be missed.