Drive (2011) – Nicholas Winding Refn’s exhilarating and hyper-violent throwback to the 80s

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Nicholas Winding Refn is one of the contemporary cinema idols of mine whose work is something I’ve been following closely for some time now. I became a huge fan after watching the exceptional Bronson and the Pusher  trilogy. In my opinion, the man hasn’t made a bad film yet. Others may disagree with me on this. I know there are some people who hate Only God Forgives with a passion. I thought it was a very interesting film and didn’t think that he was being pretentious. Anyway, His films are characterized by a unique and distinctive style that’s a collective influence of the styles of many directors like Michael Mann, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky. They also have a strong electronic background score that was seen mostly in films that came out in the 80s, most notably Michael Mann’s Thief. His 2011 film Drive is no exception.

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The film opens with The Driver (Ryan Gosling) being hired as a getaway driver for a couple of crooks who stage a night time robbery. He is expertly able to evade the authorities and his job is successful. He is a loner. Later, we learn that he works as a stunt driver in Hollywood and also has a part-time job as a mechanic at a garage owned by his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston). He strikes a friendship with a woman Irene (Carey Mulligan) who has a little son Benicio. The Driver learns that Irene’s husband is in prison. Despite this fact, he interacts with them and takes them out for fun trips. Irene’s husband Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) is soon released but there is no break in their friendship. Even Gabriel takes a liking to this mysterious stranger. Meanwhile, Shannon closes a deal with mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) that involves buying a stock car chassis and rebuild and ask The Driver to race it. The Driver agrees. One day, he finds Gabriel beaten up in a parking garage. He learns that Gabriel owed a gangster protection money while he was in prison. The gangster threatens his wife and son and asks him to come up with $40,000 or face the consequences. The Driver, upon hearing that Gabriel has decided to rob a pawn shop, decides to be his getaway driver. Things don’t according to plan and The Driver is compelled to use his superior wits and skills to stay out of danger.

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There are so many interesting things I’ve observed about this film. It’s a 2011 film with the soul of a later 70s/early 80s film. It’s an amalgam of a multitude of film influences namely Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Michael Mann’s Thief and Walter Hill’s The Driver. Now that I’ve mentioned The Driver, I can’t help but bring Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai also into the mix, as it was the primary inspiration for Walter Hill’s The Driver.  So, if I were to draw a tree-like diagram to trace the influences, Le Samourai would be at the very top and all these other films would be it’s branches. Even though it’s not mentioned in the film, Drive’s credits mention Ryan Gosling’s character name as The Driver. Now this is a name shared by another character played by an actor whose name also begins with Ryan (O’Neal). The two characters share some similarities but they are not too alike. Both characters are cautious, precise and methodical when it comes to their jobs. The only difference is that O’Neal’s character is more stoic compared to Gosling’s. O’Neal’s Driver rarely smiles whereas Gosling smiles considerably when he is around Irene and her son. Basically, Gosling’s Driver is a combination of Alain Delon’s character from Le Samourai, O’Neal’s from The Driver and to a small extent, Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.

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Now, let me point out the slight similarity it has with Taxi Driver. Both feature characters who are classic loners and are looking for a meaningful purpose to define their seemingly empty lives. Some of my friends have brought up a question regarding The Driver’s relationship with Irene. Why did he think it necessary to act as her (and her son’s) guardian angel? It’s for the same reason Travis Bickle chose to be Iris’ (notice that both women have similar sounding names) in Taxi Driver. The reason is not very clear. It’s a mystery that the audience has to solve on their own. The film’s striking neo-noir look is so reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Thief. Drive has some of the most dazzling night photography I have seen this side of a Michael Mann film. I’m sure there is a William Friedkin influence in there somewhere too. The car chases naturally evoke Friedkin’s The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A.

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And Cliff Martinez did a fantastic job with the background score. The hypnotic 80s style electronic score always puts me in a trance-like state. I loved how different kinds of sounds were used to evoke a certain response in us. For e.g, the score in the opening sequence resembles the sound of a heart beating and slowly builds to a crescendo and then stays at a uniform pace, as if to say, “This is a sequence that is supposed to make your heart beat in the same way.” And then there is the sports commentary playing in the radio in his car. The commentator announces that a player has scored a home run just as The Driver drives into the parking lot of the sports center (where the same baseball game is being played) to evade the cops. Notice the parallels. The Driver has scored a “home run” too.

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It was a huge surprise to see Albert Brooks in a villainous role for the first time. The man used to direct and star in some wonderfully sweet comedies in the 80s and early 90s. He is almost unrecognizable here. He oozes menace in every scene he is in. There is a particular moment in the film where I think even The Driver was a bit frightened of him. Maybe for a second or two. This is a scene where he tells The Driver a story of how Shannon got his limp. Once, Nino did not like the fact that Shannon had overcharged him and as a result, he and his pals broke his pelvis. It’s basically his way of saying, “Now you know what kind of people you are dealing with. Sure, I’ll do business with you but if you fuck with me, I might do something more than breaking your pelvis.” If The Driver is a scorpion, then Bernie is a python. Brooks is simply fabulous. The ending is not supposed to be as ambiguous as many have surmised. In a recent interview, Refn dispelled everyone’s doubts about the ending. I think this is one of the coolest films ever made. If there is one director who can replicate some of the lost magic of the films of the 70s or 80s, it’s Nicholas Winding Refn.

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