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Dissecting the Classics – Drive

February 15, 2019 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Ryan Gosling

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date: September 16, 2011
Directed By: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written By: Hossein Amini
Produced By: Marc Platt, Adam Siegel, Gigi Pritzker, Michel Litvak & John Palermo
Cinematography By: Newton Thomas Sigel
Edited By: Mat Newman
Music By: Cliff Martinez
Production Company: Bold Films, OddLot Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions & Motel Movies
Distributed By: FilmDistrict
Ryan Gosling as The Driver
Carey Mulligan as Irene
Bryan Cranston as Shannon
Ron Perlman as Nino
Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose
Oscar Isaac as Standard Gabriel

What Do We All Know?

Drive is a 2011 film that mixes elements of a classy romantic drama and a sleazy crime thriller, but is mostly a character piece. It was America’s introduction to the work of Nicolas Winding Refn, a director whose projects are often divisively received but nevertheless demand attention because of his undeniable skill. The film is also one of the defining roles of Ryan Gosling, showcasing his knack for enigmatic, underplayed, almost silent protagonists and likely inspiring his casting in films such as First Man and Blade Runner 2049. And despite receiving a standing ovation at Cannes, performing solidly at the box office and getting very strong reviews, it was almost invisible at the Oscars that year. (If you don’t remember what movie won Best Picture that year, it was The Artist, so let that sink in for a bit.)

Personally, Drive has been a constant presence in my ten favorite films of the decade, spending much of its time in the top five. It’s a movie that I always wanted to cover by myself, but didn’t think enough time had passed for it to be considered a classic when I started this column in 2017. Two years later, I think enough time has passed that it’s worth looking at as one of our modern classics.

What Went Right?

Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s other notable films, Drive is a meticulously constructed work of art cinema. Refn is a director who thrives on striking visual presentation, stunning audiences even without the expensive visual effects of blockbusters. When he was brought onto the project by Ryan Gosling’s request, he hacked Hossein Amini’s script of all but its most essential dialogue, turning The Driver into an almost silent protagonist. And while it would be a disservice to ignore the contributions of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, all you need to do is look at Sigel’s uninspired work on Bryan Singer’s filmography to see the impact Refn has on the visual presentation of the movie. If you’re a film student or aspiring filmmaker, I recommend seeing this movie just for the techniques on display, especially in how Refn and Sigel use the natural lines of doorways, windows and wall corners to show the figurative distance between two characters in the same frame.

So Drive undeniably looks great, but that can only get you so far. It’s got a small scale story focused on the dual life of its unnamed protagonist, who is a stunt driver by day and a driver for criminal getaways by night. We see the Driver falling in love with his neighbor Irene and doing his best to try to help her and her family out. But we also see that he’s not able to escape the violence of his criminal friends, and that these worlds collide with devastating consequences. We also see that while he is capable of warmth and compassion, he is able to flick a switch and become an explosively brutal individual capable. His nature and how it affects his life is represented by the scorpion on his jacket, a reference to the parable of the scorpion who stabs the frog he is riding across a river, because it’s still a scorpion. All of this is shown spectacularly in the film’s climactic elevator scene, where both sides come into full conflict and the Driver must make a choice.

While Ryan Gosling’s performance is the heart of the film, the movie is far from a one man show. Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks are all memorable side characters, more expressive and less in control of their emotions as a contrast to the main character. Isaac in particular gets a lot out of a small role as he started rising up the Hollywood ranks. Carey Mulligan’s Irene is quieter and more understated, showing how she gels with the Driver and represents the freedom what he wants, and Mulligan does well in the role. While the cast is not really the main draw, it’s an impressive one of notable character actors.

What Went Wrong?

Drive is not a movie for everyone at all times. Short on dialogue or action, it requires your active attention and a willingness to glean details from visuals and subtle acting. It’s also a gruesomely violent movie that is going to be off putting for many. For those reasons, Drive can be a difficult movie for me to recommend to general audiences, and I suspect that’s why it is somewhat coldly received by a lot of people. I don’t consider these to be true faults, but there is something to be said for broad appeal and the ability to latch your art into the pop culture conscience. Drive doesn’t really accomplish that, and I think it’s doomed to a life of being adored by hardcore cinephiles while being ignored by most.

And In Summary…

Drive is art in motion, a masterclass in cinematography and a quiet meditation on duality, what makes a hero or a villain, and if we can ever truly escape the consequences of our choices. The Driver is a compelling protagonist with a surprising amount of depth, and Refn’s direction trusts his audience to draw their own conclusions about the narrative rather than spoon feeding them. And also, while this review is intended to be at mildly academic… this movie is just so cool. I can gush about the technique and the storytelling and all of that, but it’s also just a movie that entertains and sticks with me. It’s not a movie for everyone, but those who like it will probably love it.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Citizen Kane, Mary Poppins, Christmas Vacation, The Iron Giant, The Secret of NIMH, Duck Soup, Unbreakable, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Fight Club, Groundhog Day

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