drive review

Drive (2011)

Drive (2011) Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn’s audiovisual symphony of art and exploitation is abstracted in delicate gestures, subtle gesticulations and poignant expressions that translate the language of cinema through an inimitable elliptical élan; a fierce, passionate, subjective tragedy. Ryan Gosling, the movie star, plays The Driver, a mysterious character who is the complete opposite of a movie star. “I drive,” he says. He works as a part-time stuntman in the movies performing life-threatening car crash sequences and daredevil pirouettes on wheels. The rest of the day he works as a car mechanic in the garage of Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who hired the child prodigy upon discovering his driving talent and has been his protégé ever since. At night, the driver is hired by criminals to carry out epic escapes on wheels. No further information about this cryptic character is revealed other than the above.

The character ellipsis kicks off the myth, Ryan Gosling is one of those myths that Hollywood sells us at the movies and in the city of angels. His mannerisms are nonchalant à la Steve McQueen and his bold objectives are as vague as those of Barry Newman’s Kowalski in Vanishing Point. However, when Carey Mulligan pops up on screen playing Irene, the driver’s neighbor and mother of a child, an inflection point is reached, not only in the plot but also on a metaphysical plane in the life of Ryan Gosling’s character. Irene and the driver develop a hushed affinity, never uttered. Both only exchange glances that speak louder than a thousand words and channel feelings, tribulations and passions through a transcendental mutism. The occasions when they exchange dialogues, they are straightforward and commonplace, mere colloquial talk. The second inflection point in the driver’s life comes when Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) returns home after having spent many years in prison. The latter truncates the pleasant romanticism settled between Irene and the driver. Yet the sublimity of the visuals never relinquishes the metaphysical momentum that embellishes the encounters between these characters, so the bond forged remains just as romantic as before, only less palpable. It immediately becomes apparent that the driver had never felt such an overwhelming level of elation in his life until he met Irene and her little son. Consequently, he is willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe, even if it means engaging in a criminal imbroglio to help Irene’s husband.

Every action that was ambiguous in the beginning, after the driver meets Irene, now becomes unambiguous, crystal clear. Handsomely shot on location, Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-lit audiovisual extravaganza turns into a piece of lyrical urbanism – the film boasts some of the most lushly vibrant imagery of downtown Los Angeles cityscape at night that I have ever seen – the brightly lit skyscrapers, the relentless sound of helicopters flying overhead and the balmy air accentuating the sound of the cars recite a Hollywood mythological poetry that evokes more of an impressionistic rendering than a realistic one. In the same fashion, the tragedy of the driver is that he is enmeshed in this urban lyricism and that of the movies. His fathomless persona, the romantic mystique that envelops him, and the idealisms of a platonic love endow him with the good-natured and savage traits of a beast, which suggests that the whole caper is a detailed account of love as seen through the lens of the beauty and the beast complex.

Our beloved driver conceals so much about his past that he is attractively dangerous. He is violent when provoked and capable of committing ghastly acts of torture when betrayed. Yet through the camera’s lens and Winding Refn’s artful mise-en-scene, the character is still seen in a heroic, tragic but heroic way. “Real human being and a real hero” goes the song that accompanies some scenes of the film. This mythological romance that the story builds towards the driver is what grounds the film as a masterpiece of impressionistic cinema; it is all about first impressions, it establishes an ethic based on the Hollywood notion of the redeemable flawed hero. The satisfying ending is one of the great depictions of what the delicious populist fraud of Hollywood cinema is all about and why cinema functions as a visceral apparatus to excite emotions with the same potency as a recreational drug.

Matteo Bedon

Written by

Editor and Official Film Critic at

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