Rarely is Nicolas Winding Refn's 2011 neo-noir classic cited as one of the greats of American cinema. Despite critical acclaim from a vast number of reviewers the film was largely overlooked by both the Academy Awards of 2012 as well as the general public, who entered cinemas expecting an L.A based crime/action biopic ,similar to the likes of Heat (1995), rather than the grand gesture to 1980's colour toned art house which they subsequently witnessed. This has led to the film being heralded as one of the cult classics of modern cinema along side predecessors of this title including Reservoir Dogs, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Pulp Fiction and Blade Runner. This is by no means a tarnish to the huge popularity and legacy of Drive, it remains number 1 on many critics lists and continues to entice audiences to this day.
The character of the Driver is a man existing within two very different lifestyles, a stunt driver/mechanic by day and a get away driver by night. The very first scene acts as an introduction to not only the dark side of the character, but also to the dark side of L.A, a setting which the audience is not usually accustomed to, hence why the opening is played out during the night, with the lights of the cities financial district glaring through the Driver's apartment window. We watch as the Driver does what he does best, with two criminals viewing intensely from the backseat of his car, he carefully meanders through the streets of inner city L.A avoiding the enclosing police forces until he finally loses them in the pandemonium of crowds exiting a stadium at the conclusion of a baseball game. Despite only seeing the Driver in action for the better part of 5 minutes, we quickly learn that this is less of a "1 off" and more of a routine for the character, preforming his preparation for the miniature heist in clockwork precision.
"There's a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don't need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own. Do you understand?"
Despite a largely simplistic script leaving very little dialog between Ryan Gosling's nameless protagonist and the heroine of Irene (Carey Mulligan), there is little doubt within the viewer of the silent yet believable relationship that blossoms between the two. Irene's desperation as a single mother following her partners incarceration leaves her in a very vulnerable position, thus, she finds comfort within the care of the Driver, who acts as the father figure the family is absent of. The long stares, smirks and glances that exist between the two characters seem to be enough to confirm that there exists some form of passion within one another that words do not convey so easily. This in itself reveals more about the Driver as a man who that believes actions speak much louder than words. In less than 25 minutes, Refn, Gosling and Mulligan have been able to convey a genuine relationship which many romance pictures fail to do within their full running time
Up to this point the film has being accompanied by the electronic score of musician Cliff Martinez. Martinez carefully fuses the synthesized pop music of the 1980's as well as retro keyboard sounds which weave in beautifully to onscreen actions, perfectly capturing the romantic nature that dominates the majority of the first half of the movie. The score has become one of the most memorable parts of the entire production, inspiring Zane Lowe to create his own alternative backing to the film which featured prominent artists such as Bastille, ChVrches and The 1975.
Refn however is quick to remind the viewer of the macabre side of this universe. The developing relationship between the Driver and Irene is put on hold by Irene's husband being released for prison. The Driver's employer Shannon (Bryan Cranston) persuades Jewish mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) to purchase/sponsor a car for the Driver to race. Irene's husband Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), owing protection money from his time in prison, is beaten up by Albanian gangsters, who demand that Standard rob a pawnshop for $40,000 to pay the debt. The gangster gives the young boy Benicio a bullet as a symbol that he and his mother are in danger. The Driver, concerned for the safety of Irene and Benicio, steals a get away car and offers to act as the driver for the pawnshop job. After the money is brought to the get away car the situation takes a turn for the worse when Standard is killed upon exiting the shop, resulting in a subsequent car chase. The fast paced switching of camera angles throughout this scene supports the panic that accompanies this sudden "heist gone wrong" scenario. The lack of CGI ads certain levels of authenticity to the scene and causes the viewer to focus more on the intense facial expressions of Gosling's character rather than the chaos which surrounds him.
As the Driver's world collapses into intense violence, epitomized by the infamous motel scene, we are taken deeper into the darker corners of L.A's underground lifestyle, from strip clubs to mob run establishments. It is here that the Driver learns that the money taken from the pawnshop belonged to the "East Coast Mob" and had been stored there by Nino. Fearing the actions of the mob, Bernie and Nino are forced tie up lose ends which connect them to the heist, including killing the Driver. From here, the vast portion of the movie takes place either at night or under the vale of darkness, emphasizing the disturbed reality the Driver has entered into. His attempts to rekindle his relationship with Irene have been obstructed by the death of Standard. He offers Irene and her son a chance to escape, however she refuses. It is here we are presented with the films most memorable and preeminent scene. After the two enter an elevator with another man the Driver spots a gun concealed within the mans jacket. Realizing that his ensuing actions will alienate Irene the Driver proceeds to kiss her, this acts as the second physical sign of affection since the two held hands within the car at the beginning of the film. The camera shifts frame and the enclosed space darkens focusing on the two as they share this moment of compassionate lust, the last of the entire film. Martinez's score perfectly captures the intensity of the scene, which the audience feels they have been waiting decades for. The Driver proceeds to turn around and beat the hitman to death, crushing his skull under his foot, each stomp becoming more and more graphic in sound until utter silence. Irene staggers out of the elevator and stares back at the figure she is now unfamiliar with. The two engage in one final glance at one another as the elevator doors close. The contrast between romance and violence presented in this very scene leaves the audience in a state of shock, very few pieces of film I have seen have been able to pull off such a feat in such a concise way. It also perfectly encapsulates the character of the Driver, a hopeless romantic contrasted with a psychopathic killer who will protect the ones he loves by any means.
The Driver experiences further heartbreak when Cranston's character Shannon is killed by Bernie in a creepily sympathetic manor, slashing his wrist with a razor from his collection of killing tools, granting him a largely painless death. Upon discovering his dead body the Driver begins to hunt down Bernie and Nino. Using a rubber mask from his stuntman job he disguises himself, follows Nino from the pizzeria to the Pacific Coast Highway and T-bones Nino's car onto a beach, then chases him from the car wreck and drowns him in the sea. I myself perceive the wearing of the stunt driver mask as holding much wider connotations than it would initially seem. It represents the intertwining of the Driver's lifestyles, what was once the Driver's hopes of a "normal life" have been dispersed by recent events, subsequently, the tools he once used for pursuing normalcy are now used for the purpose of pursuing his more darker side as the Driver.
In a largely empty Chinese restaurant Bernie promises the Driver that Irene will be safe in exchange for the money, but warns that the driver will always be on the run. At his car, the Driver gives Bernie the money but Bernie attempts to kill him. The Driver survives and fatally stabs Bernie in the neck, then drives away, abandoning the money bag alongside Bernie's body. Irene is seen knocking on the Driver's apartment door, but she receives no reply. The film concludes with the Driver diapering into the night, played out by Martinez's score. It is at this point that we see a man under the realization that the world which surrounds him has been largely destroyed by the life he leads, and that he exists as a danger to those who surrounds him. As the screen turns black the viewer is left perplexed and stunned by the events that have unfolded in front of them, but are also seemingly mesmerized and largely blown away by the composition and presentation of this fantastic piece of noir art.
Aside from the movies stand out performances, particularly Albert Brooks as the villain and Carey Mulligan as Irene, Drive exists as a bench mark in modern day cinema that writers, directors and cinematographers alike should use as an example of successful film making. It combines the use of beautifully crafted setting and exposition, fantastic acting from the films leads and sub-characters, carefully measured use of colour, lighting and sound, finalized with a skillfully deployed 1980's electronic based soundtrack allowing the desired effect of each and every scene to be displayed to the audience on both a physical and emotional level. As a noir film, like many of its forerunners, Drive will undoubtedly stand the test of time just as L.A Confidential, Memento, Double Indemnity, Taxi Driver and The Long Goodbye have before it.
The production itself is best summed up by Associated Press reporter Christy Lemire who stated in her review that...
"Thinking back, there isn't really all that much driving in Drive – a couple of chase scenes here and there, staged efficiently, thrillingly. It's more about the questionable choices that drive people – and, ultimately, the ones that drive them away."