Drive: A Five Year Retrospective

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive turns five this year and it still stands up as one of the best films of the decade.

Going into Drive, I was more or less seeing it completely cold. I hadn’t see the trailer, I remember hearing a couple of people losing their heads over it at Cannes, but I didn’t really know what the hell Drive was going to be about. I was hopeful for the film based on the buzz I’d heard, my enjoyment of Ryan Gosling and because Refn’s Bronson had knocked my socks off, but I wasn’t prepared for how high this film took me.

Refn grabs you by the collar in that opening scene and never lets up. We get that opening phone call between the unnamed Driver and his client for the night, but from there, Refn doesn’t let his characters talk and we never miss a beat through that opening sequence. The use of the police scanner and radio to inform the viewer is a nice audible touch, but even without those elements the scene would still work perfectly as Refn’s doesn’t wastes a shot. A nod to his clients, the watch, the wait for the other guy (brilliantly called back with Standard in the pawnbroker heist), clenching the fist, tailing the cop car, hiding under the overpass, stare down at stop light, hitting the parking garage at Staples Center, Refn keeps things clear while never losing an ounce of tension. As those title cards started up, with that neon pink font and a hell of a needle drop with Nightcall, I turned to my wife and said something along the lines of that we are in for something amazing. Refn didn’t let me down.

What might be most impressive about Drive is that Refn never delivers another set piece that comes close to the scope of that opening scene and you never care. The scene establishes the Driver and his skills, tells us everything we need to know about Drive’s look, tone and style, but Refn smartly keeps mixing things up in each set piece going forward. The next one we get doesn’t come till nearly half way through the film and you don’t even notice as Refn takes that high from that opening chase and lets it hold us over as we get to meet our cast of characters.

Driver is played with quiet intensity by Gosling, but those eyes let us in on that head over heels feelings he has for Carey Mulligan’s Irene and her son. Gosling sells us that he’s never felt like this before and that he really doesn’t even know what to do about these feelings. Without an actor as handsome and charming as Gosling in the role Driver would feel like an obsessed freak (well, more of one at least), as Driver goes to great lengths to make sure nothing happens to these people. Though, the script does a great job of backing Driver into a corner, and while his over the top connection to Irene and the kid pretty much leaves him feeling like he has no other option than to get involved in this mess, you can also just as easily look at what the villains are doing here and root for Driver. Gosling makes us want Driver to stay for Irene and the kid until business is done. We never ask why he doesn’t just grab his one bag, the scorpion jacket and just leave it all behind, and totally forgive him when he leaves in the end. We probably should even feel a little thankful Driver is out of Irene’s life for good.

The supporting cast is just as strong as Gosling, with a few of them even besting the star’s good work. Albert Brooks, playing mobster Bernie, is doing the best work in the film and it’s not just the surprise because he is playing against type. Bernie is the main bad guy in a film full of them, and Brooks’ intellectual bent makes Bernie menacing in a way that we aren’t use to seeing in a mob boss. Sure, he gets to brutally murder a couple of guys along the way too, but his cold-blooded honesty is what makes the part so damn fun to watch. The scene where Bernie slashes open Shannon’s wrist, during a sincere “nice doing buisness with you handshake” and after telling Shannon how genuinely excited he was about the work they will now never get to work together on, is the perfect scene that encapsulates everything that makes Brooks great in Drive.

The scene is also a great showcase for Bryan Cranston, who is just the perfect schmuck as Shannon. As loyal as a dog and as oblivious as ever when Bernie does him in during that handshake. I mean, it was a good move on Bernie’s part, but that look on Shannon’s face makes you think he thought he still might get out of there alive, and that is all in Cranston’s performance. The final scene with Shannon, a dead Shannon, is a powerful end note for the character too, as Driver comes back to the garage with the hope that Shannon is long gone. Gosling delivers on showing us Driver’s loss, Shannon probably being the closest thing to a father the guy ever had, but it’s all the work Cranston put in as the loveable loser beforehand that makes that scene as sad as it is.

Ron Perlman plays Brooks’ equal, Nino, in the bad guy department, but he gets to ham it up and have a different kind of fun as the foul-mouthed tough guy we are more familiar with in crime films. I love Perlman’s arrogance till nearly the bitter end, but even he gets creeped out in his gloriously bizarre death scene. I still don’t know why Driver goes and gets that stunt double mask, I guess so he can spot who Nino is without being noticed outside the pizza parlor, but the lifeless stare of Driver tailing, ramming and looking over the wreckage on that cliff is a wonderful horror film homage that you can root for. The score for this sequence is also delightfully bizarre. I really enjoy trying to figure out why Driver goes for the theatrics in this scene by keeping the mask on. Killing Nino is the only time Driver is the instigator of the violence, so Refn making him look like a cold-blooded horror film killer makes some sense, but the weirdness of the scene is one of its charms. Love that final wide shot, with Driver’s jacket glistening in the moonlight as he drowns Nino.

Carey Mulligan is the heart of Drive and she has some wonderful chemistry with Gosling. Irene and her kid are the only innocent souls in this film and we buy the protective nature Driver holds for them because Mulligan sells us on the sweet soul that she is. Gosling and Mulligan only have a handful of lines with one another, but her eyes tell us how much she appreciates Driver’s presence, even if she is unsure where she wants their relationship to go. Irene has a husband in jail, Standard, played by the always great Oscar Isaac, but Refn never lets her and Driver take their relationship beyond friends, as much as Driver would wish otherwise. That’s another admirable feature of Drive, in most other films our hero would get the girl in the end, but Irene never even comes close to committing to him. Yeah, the two have a spark, especially in that kiss on the elevator, but Irene is too smart to go all in on Driver, even with everything he does for her. Irene is sort of rebuking the idea of white knighting in a way, with her walking away from him even after he has just saved her life. Granted, Driver did just stomp that dudes head in right in front of her, and I think it would be a betrayal of Irene if she went for him after she witnessed something as horrible as that. Yeah, Refn has her knock on his door after he’s gone, but I think you can just as easily read that as a hope he doesn’t answer moment as you can hoping that he does. Anyway you cut it, Irene is an interesting presence in the film, and Mulligan does a great job of letting us read into her instead of just spelling it all out.

I mentioned Oscar Isaac as Standard, and he is also great in only a couple of scenes. His best spot is when he gets to size up Driver in the hallway for the first time, stepping up and acting all tough, and Isaac is able to sell it as something a guy has got to do without coming across as some asshole. I wish we got even more of Standard actually, he seems like a genuinely decent guy who is trying to find a new path in life, and you feel like it’s a shame when he gets killed in that heist gone bad. The only major face not getting enough to do in this film is Christina Hendricks as Blanche, who is forced upon Standard and Driver buy Nino’s guy, Cook, in the heist gone wrong. Hendricks is good in that motel room, letting us know she’s not quite on Driver’s side through her eyes when she texts Cook the instant Driver steps out, but Hendricks doesn’t get much else to do besides get her head blown off.

Having someone like Hendricks in that part might let Refn get a bit more of a shock out of that sequence, but Gosling delivers some of his best work in that scene. Gosling is so locked in as Driver waits for his fate, and you can see him subtly bare down for whatever comes through whichever doorway first. The motel shootout is a quick and bloody affair, but Refn doesn’t miss a beat of tension in the entire sequence. The slow reveal of Driver putting it all together from the text, to the shadow at the window, to flipping the mattress, to Blanche losing her head, Refn nails every beat.

These are plenty of reasons to hold Drive in as high of a regard as I do, but I feel like it doesn’t sit where it belongs in a lot of cinephiles’ rankings of the decade because it was co-opted by douchebag bros as the greatest thing ever. They bought the jacket, they wore the gloves, they want to be Driver, but instead of being pissed these guys love something you love, just laugh at them for missing the point. Yes, the movie is cool. Yes, the film is full of style. Yes, Driver is a superhero badass in the film. Yes, you want to see Driver succeed in the end and save the day. You can see how these bros came to the conclusions that they do, but worshiping this guy and what he stands for is a gross miscalculation on their parts and shouldn’t affect your appreciation of Drive.

I noticed a lot of film fans actively standing behind Only God Forgives as the Gosling/Refn film of choice after that came out, which is fine as I adore that film as well, but I think a lot of the love shifted off Drive to Only God Forgives because people were taking such pleasure in watching those bros freaking out when they hated Only God Forgives. I thought that phenomenon was hilarious too, but I don’t think that is a good reason to jump ship from Drive as the better of the two films by the duo. Only God Forgives feels less flashy and isn’t mainstream, and I appreciate Refn and Gosling taking their cache from Drive and making something unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but trying to take down Drive for being too for the masses is a bit unfair and short-sighted.

The music of Drive also really connected with a lot of people and helped define the film’s tone and style at every turn. Every music cue was a song I’d never heard before, but they all felt 100% perfect for the scene they were in. Cliff Martinez’s score is also a synth delight, giving the film an ethereal lightness when necessary while able to ratchet up the tension just as effortlessly. Refn’s shot creation also never fails to impress, as he and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, give us a beautiful version of LA to look at. Every shot during the day feels like magic hour, while everything at night looks nearly just as gorgeous. Hossein Amini shouldn’t go without any credit either, as his script got the story down to the bare minimum and the film never suffers for it.

My first experience of watching Drive gave me such a high that I was afraid to watch it again; afraid it won’t give you that same high on a second time. This is the feeling only something truly great can give you, and it is a feeling I haven’t felt too many times in the theater. Many of the great films might take a couple of viewings to cement their quality in your mind, but it takes something special like Drive to smack you in the face as you’re watching it, announcing itself as something truly special. Drive felt just as great when I eventually saw it again, and continues so, and it will be high on my list of the best films of this decade when things are said and done in 2020.