Drive is Perfect
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is one of those rare creatures that is a classic upon arrival, at least amongst film buffs anyway. It still receives both critical and audience gushing as time goes on. However, there are some dissenting opinions. One can often hear people saying Drive is only good because of its soundtrack or cinematography. There are those that say it is just not one of the best films they’ve ever seen, that it is overrated. Others will be reductive and say it is just a hundred minutes of Ryan Gosling staring. I feel all of these perspectives miss why people like Drive so much, so I am gonna lay it out. Drive always deserves some more love.
People don’t think Drive is one of the best films ever made, not even its biggest fan thinks that. It is no Apocalypse Now or whatever classic you think is great. Drive is perfect. It is a perfectly realised film. It is a film that ten-out-of-tens are made of. It is just about a getaway driver who tries to rescue a family from a racket, sure. No one is saying it is an incisive gaze into the human mind, or that it summarises flaws within our society or any other high artistic endeavour. It is a very good and flawless depiction of that simple plot idea. No shot or cut or camera movement is wasted. That’s why critics and film fans love it so much. It is pure cinema that is perfectly realised without flaw.
Show, don’t tell is the golden rule of cinema. Say as much as you can visually and as little as you can with dialogue. When people say that the film is a hundred minutes of Ryan Gosling staring, they’ve missed why the film is doing that. The Driver is a very complex character. He’s a shy stunt man and a getaway driver. He lives a life where he cannot be himself. It is implied by Shannon (Bryan Cranston) that The Driver came to him in some trouble. He has a dark past he doesn’t discuss, so he must be ashamed of it. The Driver spends a lot of time at night driving, obviously, clearly looking for a purpose. One could view his definitive shining jacket as the shining armour of a knight. He’s looking for a battle to fight or a damsel to save.
Drive is very good at highlighting its own cinematic influences by threading them into the plot and visuals, rather than just cheap referencing. Obviously one can easily see influences from movies like The Driver and To Live and Die in LA. However I’ve felt that The Driver’s isolation being expressed through driving alone at night was a subtle homage to Taxi Driver. The Driver is obviously not as immoral or as unhinged as Travis Bickle, but here is that shared isolation on the road of someone wanting to be a saviour, to be redeemed and no longer alone. To some degree The Driver is also obviously based on Clint Eastwood characters like the Man with No Name and other Western archetypes.
What separates The Driver from these other characters is his vulnerability. To be the lone macho hero is often a filmic masculine ideal. A propensity for violence is often celebrated in action and crime cinema. The Driver is ashamed of his violence and his criminal activities. He has strict rules to avoid conflict. He hides his ability to kill easily from those around him. He doesn’t speak in a low commanding voice, but a higher and fracturing tone. When confronting the antagonists in the final act he wears a stunt man’s mask. It’s dark, so it isn’t a disguise, he just doesn’t want to exist as himself in the moment of taking lives.
He eventually does find a damsel to rescue: Irene (Carey Mulligan). However he doesn’t do this for sexual gain, despite clear feelings for her. In fact, he is quite the honourable knight, as he respects her marriage.
Ultimately it’s her husband he tries (and fails) to save. Eventually The Driver leaves Irene behind because of his shame. She witnesses him commit a justified, but horrific, piece of killing. He even kisses her before he kills the man, because he feels she’ll reject him once she sees what he ‘is’.
The violence of Drive is very particular as is its placement. The Driver only gets into fights or kills when the narrative forces him. The narrative always makes sure this happens on the cusp of a character beat for maximum intensity. The violence itself is painful to look at. It’s not ‘cool’. When he crushes a man’s head in with his foot it is horrific. The gore is off-putting in and of itself, but worsened by Irene watching and The Driver clearly about to cry doing it. He has no interest in maintaining a facade as a cool action hero. He doesn’t want to be an island.
Another key moment of violence is when Blanche (Christina Hendricks) has her head blown off. It is done in a piece of stylistic slow-motion. It’s unpleasant to look at. However, one could accuse this moment as a piece of style-over-substance. Many declare that’s what every scene of Drive is. However, Drive uses slow motion and editing in a very particular way. The slow motion death of Blanche begins a sequence of The Driver killing two men. Played in real time these sequences would have taken about twenty seconds. The slow motion allows one to see every small decision The Driver takes, every near miss and every calculation that leads to his victory. If played at normal speed the sequence would just imply that he just defeated the two men with pure rage. Blanche’s grim slow motion death sets these proceedings off with a gut punch.
One could forgive someone for thinking Drive is an exercise in style over substance because Nicholas Winding Refn has released films like that elsewhere. On the other hand, everything in Drive has a purpose. There are only two car chases. One is shown from the perspective of the front of the car in the fashion of The Driver. This chase is slow and methodical. It’s to set up The Driver as calm, but controlling. He is not prone to panic. Later when he is forced to enact an escape he was not expecting there is no slow motion or calmness, the chase is chaotic and dangerous. The long holding shots on Gosling’s face throughout the film isn’t an indulgence of style, it’s to allow his underlying mood to cut into the viewer. Otherwise how could one ever empathise with such a reserved man? A normal editing pattern would not allow the time for his state of mind to be absorbed by the audience.
The majority of the criticisms of ‘style over substance’ are thrown at the cinematography and music*, as previously mentioned. The cinematography and framing being unrealistically neat is intentional. It is designed to register as not quite real, in spite of the down-to-Earth story. This helps on-the-nose visual metaphors (see above) to be less distracting. On a basic level the music is clearly there to directly reference the ‘80s crime movies that Drive is reconceptualising. However, in tandem with the slow pans and long takes, the music creates a dreamlike state. Drive is using the dreamlike state and a knight-in-shining-armour protagonist to say its story is akin to a fairy tale. The movie even openly cites the tale of the scorpion and the frog. Many films have adopted fairy tale tropes and aesthetics before, but Drive stands out because of its intensity. In spite of the entire film being almost sleepy in its execution, the events are intense because of the stark violence and the incredibly empathetic protagonist.
Drive is a perfect realisation of a simple concept. It has a great protagonist in Ryan Gosling’s Driver: a man who betrays a thousand facets with less than a dozen words who has a newer form of masculinity for an action hero. The film also has stand out characters like Shannon, Blanche, Bernie (Albert Brooks), Nino (Ron Perlman) and Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac). It is a slick 100 minute classically styled action movie, but it knows how to build on the foundation of those who went before, rather than cheaply reference them. The cinematography is beautiful, but with purpose, as is the soundtrack. The film knows how to make action exciting and when to make it uncomfortable. It’s a fairy tale and a dream, that manages to be intense and horrific, but without being a nightmare. It does all of this without wasting a shot, a cut, a slow motion pan and it believes in show, don’t tell.
*It’s worth noting that Contagion came out the same week as Drive. It also adopts a show, don’t tell mantra, whilst also having a synth soundtracks by Cliff Martinez of Drive. Contagion‘s soundtrack and stylisms are often incredibly similar to Drive‘s. It was also well received critically. However, because it doesn’t enjoy the same levels of ‘popularity’ as Drive, it suspiciously never gets the same accusations of being overrated or only good because of its soundtrack. Contagion is also really good and you should watch it.