2011’s neon-drenched Drive earned a standing ovation at its Cannes debut, winning Nicolas Winding Refn Best Director in a sea of critical praise. Despite the initial reaction of the film world being one of awe as it witnessed a virtuoso at work, some retrospective pieces have branded Drive one the most overrated films of the decade. Particularly, some have noted the similarities with Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, whilst suggesting that Baby Driver combines style and substance where Drive does not. So which appraisal is right: stylish substance? Or a shallow experience disguised underneath impressive visuals?
The plot of Drive is simple by design. The nameless Driver the film follows is a Hollywood stunt-driver by day, and a get away driver for criminals by night. However, as he begins to form a connection with his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), his efforts to improve their lives crash full-throttle into the criminal underworld he himself is a part of, thus leading him to reject one life to protect the other, as he vies against criminal bosses portrayed by Alfred Brooks and Ron Perlman.
A film doesn’t receive such a response at Cannes without holding some merit. Refn is an extremely talented filmmaker, evident in the visual flair displayed throughout Drive. I’ve heard Refn is colour-blind, which only makes the vivid, deliberate use of colour to drench this film in its own unique atmosphere all the more impressive. Equally atmospheric is Cliff Martinez’s synthwave score, adding a brooding soundscape sonically symmetrical with the decrepit parts of Los Angeles Drive inhabits. This all helps immerse us in a world that exists in Refn’s dreams rather than is tangible in reality. Likewise, the filming of certain sequences from largely or entirely within The Driver’s Car helps to immerse us in this dream world; the first sequence of the film works accordingly to instantly build an affinity between us and Gosling.
Gosling sells The Driver to us as a real person with nuances and idiosyncrasies, rather than merely an actor playing a character. There is a genuine conflict between him and Albert Brooks villainous Bernie Rose, in perhaps a career-best performance. The rest of the supporting cast ranges from effective to strong; Oscar Isaac notably imbues a bit-part character with a depth not present in the script itself.
What is most impressive about this story, however, is Refn’s aforementioned visual flair; his story is most effective when communicated visually. Dialogue is employed extremely economically, with much of the story instead communicated through sound and vision. The most acclaimed example of this is the elevator scene midway through the film. Shot in a confined but moving space, the sequence perfectly captures how The Driver can no longer chose inaction, situated between the woman he has grown to love and the violent consequences of his criminal life. Wordlessly and gracefully, the scene moves from slow-mo intimacy to intense violence.
So why does this finely crafted scene leave me feeling somewhat empty? Explaining this is key to explaining my broader critique of Drive, for the reasons Refn himself gives:
‘Yeah, I structured the movie very much like a Grimm’s fairy tale…it had to be extremely pure in the beginning, but then it had to be very dark and moralistic at the end. One part needed the other part to justify the circle…it starts off as something really pure and beautiful, but then it erupts into a psychotic explosion.’
The contrast between tender romance and brutal violence is undoubtedly intense at a sensory level. But how it is “moralistic” is less clear. Distill the message of the scene down, and it really isn’t anything interesting or originally presented: vigilante violence is justified by romantic motivation. Intense lightning and ambient synth music doesn’t somehow make this profound; visual style cannot substitute intellectual substance. This is a problem that extends to the movie as a whole, and it is here that the visual storytelling of Drive falls down – because a poor story lacking emotional resonance or intelligent ideas doesn’t become better simply by being told visually.
This is not to say that Drive is without some intelligence. Many have highlighted the parallels present between The Driver and Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. Both are nameless anti-heroes who stumble into the events of their respective stories, easily identified through their distinctive outfits (a scorpion-branded jacket and faded poncho). Both also have withdrawn personalities and idiosyncratic mannerisms, as they avoid significant engagement with people and focus on practising their singular talent.
Where these two characters diverge, however, demonstrates the deficiencies in The Driver as an effective protagonist. Crucially, The Driver only seems to be involved in violence and crime as an opportunity to use his talents, whilst The Man With No Name is irrevocably violent – violence is his talent. He lives in a harsh and violent world, where he is only able to survive because he excels at outwitting and outshooting criminals and rivals. Conversely, The Driver has meaning outside of his violence, and is established as a character who doesn’t need to employ violence at all to live comfortably, nor employ his talent. Thus, where Leone created a character that gels with the setting he was shooting in, Refn conversely tries to justify The Driver’s violence by adjusting the world around Gosling. One approach feels natural, and one feels artificial.
The consequence is that The Driver’s violence is disorienting, which is heightened by the differences in how Refn and Leone present their characters. The Man With No Name’s words reveal little, but nuance is added to him through his actions – particularly in this famous wordless scene. The reverse is generally true for The Driver. His actions tend to be violent and unpleasant, with his little dialogue intended to provide a softening counterpoint. But none of his sweet nothings to Irene are nearly as memorable as the image of Eastwood handing a dying man a cigar; none are as memorable as The Driver crushing somebody’s skull with his foot. Thus, it is ironically too little rather than too much visual storytelling that handicaps Gosling’s character.
Less convincing parallels have also been drawn by Refn between The Driver and superheroes – though reading such comments seem eerie in light of the increasingly dark and hyper-violent recent superhero films. Nonetheless, superheroes don’t throw people to the floor then stamp their heads into pulp, no matter how much they may deserve it. Refn’s reasoning for The Driver being a superhero is that he uses violence to protect people against injustice, which is a description that could encompass the vast majority of non-superhero action movie protagonists. I’m not going to humour this bizarre comparison any further, but it is worth mentioning as a demonstration of the broader wonky and half-baked intellectual approach underpinning Drive.
This returns to the dominance of hyper-violence throughout Drive, as it feels like Refn feels violence is its own intellectual justification. Refn compared his affinity for violent filmmaking as akin to that of a ‘pornographer’ when discussing his equally-violent Only God Forgives. He has even gone so far as to remark that ‘art is an act of violence, and the more emotionally engaged you are in a piece of art, the more violent it feels.’ Violence doesn’t serve as a means here; violence is an ends to meet Refn’s titillation. This does not deny that the violence in Drive is technically impressive, nor that it generally does progress the narrative at a basic level. But it does highlight that Refn seems to prioritise violence for its sensory value first and foremost, with no greater meaning underpinning the violence than the threadbare and emotionally-middling plot.
Another, perhaps unwitting, parallel with the works of Sergio Leone comes in how this whirlwind of ultra-violence – perpetuated by a male anti-hero – excludes female perspective. Besides Marisol in For a Fistful of Dollars, women are almost entirely absent from the Dollars Trilogy. Beyond those films, there is the outright misogynist and exploitative treatment of Deborah in Once Upon a Time in America. Likewise, the two female characters present in Drive exist either as motivation for male action, or simply as a punching bag. Carey Mulligan’s Irene only serves as an emotional prop, to justify The Driver’s transition to ‘superhero.’ The only other notable female character is Christina Hendricks’ ultimately inconsequential criminal, threatened with violence where she is completely incapable of defending herself against the supposedly-heroic Driver. She is then murdered in excessively violent style. Refn’s comments on the casting of the character are telling:
Hendricks’ character is established as criminal, but not as a sex worker. Thus, the implication here is as transparent as it is retrograde: female criminals are inevitably connected to sex work. Knowing that Refn conceived of Hendricks character in this way also has connotations of the ‘Disposable Sex Worker‘ trope. Moreover, the only other women visible in Drive are nameless strippers, silent and subservient to powerful, male crime lords that they serve.
This combines with The Driver’s awkward characterisation to leave an emptiness at the heart of this film. The Man With No Name was a hero from a different time, conceived in the 1960s for a film set in the American West. That archetype is less compelling in a contemporary setting, and while the misogyny here was probably not intentional, it is an unfortunate by-product of the intellectual approach behind Drive, where voyeuristic violence is prized above emotional resonance or intellectual boldness.
Thus, we are left with a male power fantasy lacking clever ideas or emotional heft. Drive is undeniably stylish and deliberately crafted, with a precision to its visual flair and atmosphere. Nevertheless, it is a hollow experience that is neither cerebral nor emotional in its priorities. Instead, Drive prioritises the sensory and immediate through its intense violence, vivid imagery and retro soundscape. This succeeds in immersing us in the singular world of The Driver, leaving an ethereal, dreamlike initial impression. But as dreams fade easily from memory, so too does Drive – for the most interesting thing about the people, events and ideas of this dream is the filmmaking techniques used to visualise them.