Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Length: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Synopsis: By day, Driver (Gosling) is a mechanic and stunt driver just trying to get by, but at night he moonlights as a getaway driver, selling his services for five minutes at a time and executing his work with cold confidence. He lives almost entirely behind the wheel of a car—until he encounters his sweet, pretty neighbor Irene (Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Leos). A mutual attraction grows between them, but before they can act on their feelings Irene’s husband, Standard (Isaacs), returns from prison. Suddenly, Driver’s personal and criminal lives collide when he decides to help Standard do a job and pay off his debt to a dangerous group of men. However, when the job goes wrong, Driver must resort to violence in order to protect Irene and Benicio.
Analysis: American cinema has had a long love affair with high performance cars and fast driving. Films like Bullitt, starring the legendary Steve McQueen, or more recent fare like Death Proof and the Fast and Furious movies reflect Hollywood’s fixation with cars. Yet the vehicles in these films are not just cold machines. Rather, they are extensions of the men who drive them. They allow their emotionally controlled drivers to express their freedom and power, and that certainly applies to Winding Refn’s film. Driver is mild-mannered and kind outside of his vehicle, but he becomes pure vengefulness behind the wheel. As his name suggests, in a car, Driver is entirely in control; he doesn’t fear danger, he simply does what he must. At first, he restricts the cold, efficient side of his personality to his criminal activities, but when Irene is threatened he must fully embrace his violent tendencies.
Driver’s evolution towards violence is not typical to an action hero. Rather, it more closely resembles the character development of classical westerns, particularly George Stevens’ 1953 film Shane. In both films, the main male characters are essentially outlaws who briefly suppress their dangerous sides in hopes of integrating into a happy family life. Both men seem to cultivate an unspoken infatuation with a married woman they are too noble to steal. However, both men are too tied to their criminal pasts, and they must embrace the part of them that makes them unfit for family life in order to protect it. Though he is essentially a dangerous man of action, Driver envisions an alternate life with Irene and Benicio. However, because of his felonious tendencies, he cannot completely integrate with them.
What’s so interesting about Gosling’s performance (and likely why he’s garnering early Oscar buzz) is that he, as well as Refn and Mulligan, are not afraid of ambiguous silence. The film’s greatest strength is the way it exploits silence to build incredible tension. The tensest scene occurs in, of all places, an elevator. It begins with Irene and Driver joining a man the audience knows is sent to kill them. When Driver realizes why the other man is there, he is finally forced to abandon his peaceful persona and embrace his violent side. However, he takes one last moment to say goodbye to the family life he could have lived. From the moment the elevator doors close, the scene is shot in slow motion—a device that emphasizes just how fleeting the moment really is. Driver nudges Irene into the back corner of the elevator, both to protect her and make their interaction more intimate and Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack briefly abandons its foreboding mood for a delicate, romantic tone. It’s a beautifully crafted moment that brings the romantic and criminal plotlines crashing into each other, but also offers a much-needed respite from the built up tension.
Allow me to illustrate just how potent the tension was by this point with a personal anecdote. I saw Drive with a very vocal and responsive audience. Yet Refn and the actors were able to create such compelling tension that the audience sat in rapt silence as the elevator doors closed—at least until the projector died. I have never heard such a unified angry scream come from an audience as I did in those first moments of darkness. In fact, the audience was so enthralled that, despite the lateness of the hour and the promise of free movie passes, over ¾ of the audience sat in semi-darkness for nearly an hour to see the conclusion. As one patron said, “I just have to see how it ends.” When the film finally resumed, the audience cheered and by the time Driver was kicking the hit man’s face in, they were rabid.
What makes Drive so remarkable is that it is constructed completely counter to other contemporary action films, yet it still brings out the same level of engagement from its audience. Refn, Gosling and Mulligan have constructed a compelling love story out of significant looks and pregnant pauses. It is a story so expertly told, that it demands to be heard, even when it’s silent.