A Retrospective on Drive (2011)

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Film noir is a genre that originated back in the early 20th century with films that showcased femme fatales, expressionist-style shots, mature narratives, and conflicted protagonists. Some of my personal favorite films, Double Indemnity and The Third Man, fall under the film noir classification and have persisted as cinematic classics for generations.

Now, though the term "film noir" will evoke recollections of Depression era, black and white films, the genre actually still exists today.

The term "neo-noir" became popularized in the 1970's, coined as a term that literally means "new film noir". Now, this particular genre of film shares a variety of similarities with film noir, though with some modern perspectives.

Thus, the 2011 film, Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn exemplifies the neo-noir genre to a tee. With elements of art house as well, the film presents a relatively straightforward plot through the interconnections of complex characters.

Drive (2011) Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel

The Faces

Interestingly, the primary character of this film, Driver portrayed by Ryan Gosling, is never actually referred to by a legitimate name. This ambiguity in regard to his identity is particularly fitting when you consider his double life as a stunt driver and getaway driver for hire.

Driver is quite an independent introvert. He speaks few words, asks few questions, and pursues every job he takes in an objective manner.

Thus, one can infer that Driver exists in a circle, never straying from his routine and general state of being.

Now, this state of being experiences some alterations when he becomes acquainted with his neighbor Irene, portrayed by Carey Mulligan. His intimate connection with her results in the unexpected formation of another branch of his life, one that breaks the circularity of his typical routine.

Drive (2011) Based on Drive by James Sallis

The Changes

This may initially appear to have a positive effect on Driver's lifestyle. Though, it is worth noting that Driver does not appear to have facilitated many close connections to other individuals. Therefore, he has never had to balance his lifestyle.

So, ultimately, Driver struggles to maintain distinctions in his life between his day job and his more complex, illicit obligations. This struggle grows more complicated when he takes on a job with Irene's husband, Standard. Matters only become more complex when the job goes awry, resulting in Standard's death.

The Night

Driver's job as a getaway driver does not necessarily invoke violence. However, it is a job that facilitates it, and Driver himself does not shy away from gruesome acts. The film depicts Driver engaging in acts of torture and brutality throughout the film.

Additionally, he engages in these acts without remorse or horror. Thus, despite being this film's "protagonist", our titular character is not necessarily a hero nor does he aspire to be. Though, it is worth noting that Driver does not need to be the hero.

This film is rooted in a story that does not exactly produce winners. Each and every character loses in this film, and each and every choice these characters make result in the repercussions upon someone else.

Thus, one must consider the trajectory of Driver's actions. The world he exists in, though rooted in our reality, burgeons through ultraviolence.

Drive (2011) Screenplay by Hossein Amini

The Nature

So, though Driver found a source of positive influence in his relationship with Irene, he is ultimately unable to facilitate a healthy relationship with her.

Ultraviolence persists around him and permeates through the interactions he maintains with others, even Irene, stemming from the moment her husband died while on a job with Driver.

This permeation of violence culminates in the film's iconic elevator sequence. When Irene and Driver take a ride on an elevator alongside a hitman tasked to kill the two, Driver makes the decision to bid Irene farewell with a kiss.

He follows through on this act right before he bludgeons the hitman to death. In this moment, Driver became aware of the reality that he could not separate Irene from the darkness his life warrants.

Drive (2011) Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

The Masks

It is worth noting the instances Driver dons a mask in this film. The initial instance is when he is shooting a stunt for his day job.

The other instance is when Driver faces off against the film's primary antagonist, Nino played by Ron Perlman, upon the film's climax.

Up until this point, Driver has not needed nor has he expressed a desire to don a mask when he conducts acts of violence.

This was not until he killed a man right in front of Irene.

Thus, one could conclude that when Driver exposed this aspect of himself to Irene, he felt a need to distinguish his own persona. He felt a need to disassociate the violent aspects of himself from the persona he decides to show the world.

Drive (2011) Music by Cliff Martinez

The Aesthetic

Now, there are variety of defining characteristics associated with the film noir genre. These characteristics include low-key lighting, morally questionable protagonists, and big city settings.

Unsurprisingly, Drive comprises many of these aspects amongst others.

The film exemplifies a great play with shadows that juxtapose an illuminated, Los Angeles backdrop. This play with the lighting parallels the very nature of Driver himself and the tension his character maintains with violence and a desire to find happiness in human connection.

With this, Los Angeles itself facilitates its own character in Drive.

On the surface, it is a beautiful city full of ambition and dreams. Additionally, this idealism is underscored by a fantastically electric soundtrack featuring artists such as College, Kavinsky, and composer Cliff Martinez that evokes an enigmatic, galvanizing energy.

Now, when the sun fades, and the lights come up across the LA skyline, the city conveys a much more insidious personality, one that promotes darkness, crime, and violence while still maintaining the relentless energy of the day.

Drive (2011) Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel

The Getaway

Drive is undoubtedly one of my personal favorite films. So, though I may be biased, I think it is safe to say that the film never got the recognition it deserved.

Of course, many aspects of the film are not found in many mainstream films. From its unique soundtrack to its character-driven narrative, Drive is unexpected and unpredictable.

Though, those exact elements, amongst others, are what make the film compelling and a stand-out.

All of these aspects come together cohesively to form a fluid film that full of energy that lingers with you long after watching.