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Drive (2011)

By Bryan Nixon.

“What do you do?” Irene asked.

He carefully calculated his response and replied, “I drive.”

The protagonist of Drive is a passive aggressive unnamed entity who consistently acts with precision in any given situation. He rarely speaks, and when he does it is usually when he has first been spoken to. Staring sternly at and through society without blinking while on and off the road, the driver is a modern representation of the antihero who brings to mind characters such as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and Alain Delon’s hitman in Le Samouraï (1967). What is his weakness? What are his faults? Theoretically, he has too much faith in himself and therefore crosses paths with too many violent people; this is how the mesmeric tension of Drive works so well.

In his apartment room, the driver informs his client that, “If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes, then I’m yours, no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. I drive. Do you understand?” The driver says nothing in the following chase sequence, a sleek midnight-in-L.A. robbery and getaway in the tradition of Michael Mann films such as Heat (1995).  In character with a toothpick, a pair of leather gloves, and a satin jacket with a golden scorpion scaling the back which serves as an homage to Kenneth Anger’s short Scorpio Rising (1964), the driver patiently waits in his car, purposefully a modern Chevy Impala that is not coincidentally the most popular car in L.A., while keeping an eye on his wristwatch attached to the steering wheel counting down from five minutes. Two thieves dressed in black and carrying suitcases full of cash dash into the car. The driver takes heed of the police and drives cautiously instead of recklessly. One can argue that he takes the opportunity to toy with the police. His efforts are perfectly executed. He walks away clean.

Ryan Gosling and Oscar Isaac in Drive

His day jobs offer his services as a stunt-driver for Hollywood action movies and as a traditional mechanic. Upon meeting his neighbor Irene, played tenderly by Carey Mulligan, the driver seemingly finds himself falling in love. She has a young son (Kaden Leos) who’s father Standard (Oscar Isaac) is soon to be released from prison. The driver and Irene have many scenes in which they stare into one another and comfortably share the silence. When she tells him of Standard’s release, the camera lingers on the driver’s blank gaze for a great length and cuts before he responds. Standard’s return is daunting. He loudly and proudly speaks of second chances in life and being there for Irene and their child. When he meets the driver in their apartment hallway, he is subtle in his threatening. Thankfully, Drive is intent on avoiding the cliché of a jealous husband exacting revenge on the protagonist for “helping” his wife. Standard instead seeks the help of the driver, who offers his services as getaway driver for a pawnshop robbery to protect Irene from gangsters who require thousands of dollars for offering Standard protection while he was imprisoned. The robbery goes awry and results in Standard’s death as he runs to the driver’s escape vehicle. The driver is pursued as soon as he makes his escape in one of the most impressively tasteful chase sequences in cinema.

Albert Brooks in Drive

The thugs of Nino’s Pizzeria owner Nino, played by a riotous yet weary Ron Perlman, and Mafioso ex-movie producer Bernie Rose, portrayed by a ruthless Albert Brooks, are hot on the driver’s tail and encourage the aggressiveness in him. The driver suddenly finds himself unloading shotgun shells, threatening men with a hammer, and kicking in skulls. The third act of the film devolves into standard Hollywood meet-me-and-bring-the-loot fair, but it still remains compelling due to the intensity built in the second act and sustained throughout.

The film’s composition is a fascinating interpretation of film noir. Drive does not feature rapid editing and conversely takes advantage of long takes in which movements and conversations are slowly, rhythmically paced; actors are often allowed to react in real time without cuts. The camera is either motionless or flowing with care on a crane or steadicam. The score by Cliff Martinez (Contagion, 2011) can be described as electronica that lurks in the darkness and the dream-pop soundtrack is sublimely retro. The title-sequence recalls the ‘80’s with its neon-pink lipstick font presented in cursive. Director Nicolas Winding Refn, who won the Best Director award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, uses these elements to craft a high-speed crime drama that gains momentum and notably shows restraint where it could rocket launch in the vein of The Fast and the Furious (2001).

It is initially surprising how infrequently driving occurs in the film. The same can be said for Quentin Tarantino’s sludgy car-chase slasher Death Proof (2007). Characters live and breathe in these environments. Their cars are merely their tools. They have bold personalities that have been molded from the examination of driving films past. Death Proof, however, resonates primarily for its third act comprised of a lengthy, dirty, and deadly highway duel showing off amplified stunts with its old school Challengers and Chargers. With Drive, you’ll remember the man, not the machine.

Bryan Nixon is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer. His colleague Jacob Mertens reviews the same film here.

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Further reading
Christopher Sharrett, ‘Drive, or the Hero in Eclipse’.

Film Details

Director Nicolas Winding Refn

Screenplay Hossein Amini

Original Novel by James Sallis

Producers Michel Litvak, John Palermo, Marc Platt, Gigi Pritzker, Adam Siegel

Director of Photography Newton Thomas Sigel

Art Director Christoper Tandon

Editor Matthew Newman

Score Cliff Martinez

Costumes Erin Benach

With Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Ron Perlman (Nino), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Oscar Isaac (Standard), Christina Hendricks (Blanche)

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