“If I drive for you, you get your money. You tell me where we start, where we’re going, where we’re going afterwards. I give you five minutes when we get there. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything a minute on either side of that and you’re on your own. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. I drive.”
This is said at one point by “The Driver” (Ryan Gosling) who is the protagonist of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s 2011 crime drama Drive based on James Sallis’ 2005 novel of the same name. His almost robotic delivery of his working conditions to the criminals that he escorts sets the expectation that the film will be a high-octane thriller in the same vein of The Transporter. At least that’s what the film’s intense opening heist sequence leads us to believe which followed by a stylised title sequence showcasing some gorgeous over-head cinematography of L.A.’s cityscape while Kavinsky’s euphoric synth tune Night Call plays throughout. However, it becomes more apparent as the film progresses that its actually an art-house vehicle disguised in a pulpy B-movie coat of paint. The title of the film actually alludes to the thing that is mentally, if you’ll pardon the pun, ‘driving’ its characters.
So what exactly is driving the Driver? (Aside from a number of vintage cars). Well, for a start he is an outsider but he is also someone who feels trapped within a lane that he can’t seem to find an exit out of. His talents behind the wheel are put to use both as a stunt driver on Hollywood movies by day but also as a getaway driver for criminals after hours. As his only friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) puts it: “if you put him behind a wheel… there’s nothing he can’t do.” However, what the Driver wants more than anything is to live a more ordinary life and to leave the criminal lifestyle in his rear view mirror.
His opportunity at achieving this enters in the form of Irene (Carey Mulligan); a young mother whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is currently incarcerated. After helping her with her shopping, the Driver gradually begins to form a connection with Irene and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). But following Standard’s release from prison and the inclusion of sinister mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino Paolozzi (Ron Perlman), the Driver soon comes to realise he may have gone down a road from which he can no longer return.
Upon its initial release at a number of awards festivals, Drive was greeted to an overwhelmingly positive response from the critics who gave the film a standing ovation at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival with Refn taking home the festival’s award for Best Director. But following a wider release, there were some audience members who felt the promotional material had misled them into thinking that the film would be more action-packed. One woman from Michigan even perpetuated this to an unnecessary extreme by attempting to sue the film’s distributors for false advertising because it did not have enough “driving” scenes despite being called Drive. But while the trailers could have led someone to expect the film to be this way, it’s not what the filmmakers intended the film to be at all.
With his previous filmography, Refn has made a number of films that have often been packaged in specific genre frameworks but are more focused on diving deep into his characters’ state of mind. His Pusher trilogy may have the look of a gritty run-by-night crime thriller but at their core they’re stories about marginalised individuals who believe themselves to be ahead of the curve and are actually the sidekicks in their own story. Another one of Refn’s previous films Valhalla Rising may look like your average hack-and-slash viking tale but at its heart it’s more about the way in which people interpret religion. Refn has demonstrated with these films that that he has no desire to confine himself within one narrative lane and how he melds elements of other genres together to produce something that seems familiar on the surface but has a far more unconventional interior.
This is clearly apparent in Drive with Refn infusing a myriad of other genre. We have a silent protagonist that bears similar characteristics to Clint Eastwood’s western gunslinger The Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollar Trilogy while the central romance that blossoms between the Driver and Irene is similar to one found in a sentimental John Hughes romantic-comedy. As their connection grows, Driver’s world literally gets brighter which is further emphasised at one montage where they drive down the sunny streets of L.A. while another upbeat synth tune, College & Electric Youth’s “A Real Hero”, plays throughout. There is also a surprising fairytale quality to the film especially the “hero triumphing over evil” with the Driver acting as the “knight in shining armour” who will save the day and defeat the greater evil. Refn combines these genre influences and more and delivers it to us in the guise of an 80s action thriller set against the backdrop of modern-day Hollywood.
Drive is populated by characters who could seem like the archetypal figures most commonly found in a film-noir or 80s action drama. Gosling’s Driver has slicked-back hair, chews a toothpick and wears a silver bomber jacket with a scorpion embroidered on the back; a look of a no-nonsense and efficient bad-ass who does a lot behind the wheel but says very little. But as the film progresses, the layers begin to peel away revealing him to be a much more vulnerable character. Throughout the film, his stoic visage slowly transitions from cool, calm and collected and into that of a scared child. Despite the difficult situation he has now put himself in, he still believes himself to be one who will save Irene and Benicio from the terror imposed by the film’s equally layered antagonists.
Just like the Driver, there is a lot more than meets the eye with Bernie and Nino. Albert Brooks knocks it out of the park as the former “B-movie” film producer turned mobster Bernie Rose and so does Ron Perlman who brilliantly plays against the stereotype of the tough-guy gangster figure. Both of them may have the look of a couple of no-nonsense mob bosses who aren’t afraid to slit a throat or two to set an example to anyone who dares cross their path. But much like the Driver, Bernie and Nino also feel as though they have gone too far down a path from which they can no longer return. When it comes down to carrying out a brutal act of violence (of which there are plenty to be found in this film), it’s less of something that they feel comfortable at doing and more of a last resort. The look on Bernie’s face at one point in the film says it all: it’s more of a “look what you made me do” kind of reaction.
It has been ten years since Drive first arrived at cinemas and it’s a relief to see that the film still holds up all these years later. It sees Nicolas Winding Refn at the top of his filmmaking craft paying homage to his roots in independent cinema while injecting it witha big-budgeted sensibility along with a visual flare that never runs the risk of becoming over-bearing. There may be little in the way of dialogue or action spectacle but Refn’s precise directorial vision, well rounded characters and gorgeous visual presentation make Drive an art-house vehicle that’s worth hopping into.