Why It Works: Drive

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.


With THE NEON DEMON slinking its way into theaters this weekend (you can read our review here), Nicolas Winding Refn is giving us another glimpse into his dark, strange, pink and purple-tinted brain. Refn is certainly a director who values style and the evocative over what we would consider standard filmmaking, which results in some fairly polarizing output. As DRIVE's Bernie Rose would put it, "Sexy stuff. One critic called them European. I thought they were shit." Most people I've talked to either loved or hated DRIVE, which of course makes it an excellent candidate for this column. Slow-paced, starring a soft spoken, nameless lead, and featuring a soundtrack more memorable than the plot, DRIVE turned off some audiences and enchanted others. Here's why it works:


In DRIVE's opening sequence, we see the protagonist doing what he does best. Driving the getaway car for a robbery, he outsmarts and outdrives the police, giving them the final slip by pulling into the Staples Center parking structure just as a Clippers game is letting out. Morally speaking, Driver isn't a good guy, but neither is he a bad one. As we see his relationship with Irene and Benicio develop, it's clear he has a good heart and just happens to have a different view of the world than we're used to. Also, by not saying much and showing little emotion, he tends to be a bit of blank slate, which allows us to decide for ourselves exactly who he is and what (ugh) drives him. Along the way, the Driver crosses no shortage of colorful characters, including the sweet Irene and Benicio, the overly chummy Shannon, the intense Standard, the caustic Nino, the duplicitous Blanche, the sleazy Cook, and Albert Brooks as the brilliantly cast mastermind Bernie Rose.

"Oh, you two know each other!"


Not only does the opening scene introduce the character of the Driver, but it also sets us up for what to expect from the film. The getaway is built on tension and mood rather than action, with more sitting in a dark, idling car than perhaps any "chase" scene in history. The film's marketing had some audiences expecting an action movie, which is unfortunate, but DRIVE is crafted more for the patient that the sensationalist. Adding to this is the fact that DRIVE's main plot point- the Driver helping Standard get out of debt and the ensuing chain of events- doesn't occur until almost 50 minutes into the 100 minute-long film. What keeps us watching for the first half, then? For one, though it's not a story that goes anywhere, Shannon's attempt to make the Driver a stock car racer funded by Bernie puts the characters in touch with other and keeps the film feeling like one story rather than several. More importantly, the Driver's relationship with Irene is both endearing and, with Irene's husband still in the picture, concerning. Much like ROCKY, DRIVE is about a complicated love story as much if not more than its front-facing subject matter (okay, maybe not much like ROCKY). Finally, this is where style and mood come into play. While they may not be for everyone, the stirring music choices, long beats, minimalist dialogue, and heavy mood make DRIVE a unique experience. While many Western audiences are not used to something as impressionistic as Refn's work, those of us who are open to it are treated to a rich assortment of stimuli.

Leave it to Oscar Isaac to take a fairly small role and absolutely crush it.


Once the plot of DRIVE gets going, and after the holy shit deaths of both Standard and Blanche, the sequence of events is mostly what you'd expect from an mob-ish, movie: the Driver tracks down Cook, a hitman tries to take Driver out but gets his face smashed in, Bernie takes out Cook and Shannon, the Driver hunts down and kills Nino, and Bernie and the Driver engage in a final showdown, leaving Bernie dead in a parking lot and the Driver injured but still able to ride off into the night. As expected from a film like this, though, while the film's plot points seem fairly standard, each one still feels like nothing we've seen before. The Driver attacks Cook with a hammer and a bullet while strippers look on nonplussed, Bernie takes Cook out with a fork and knife and Shannon with a straight razor, the Driver uses the mask from his job as a stunt driver to terrify Nino, and the elevator scene features the film's most beautiful moment immediately followed by its ugliest. Though the rest of the story wraps up as well as can be expected, we're left aching as Irene knocks on the Driver's door to no avail. With Bernie and Nino taken care of and Standard's unfortunate passing, Irene, Benicio, and the Driver should be free to live happily ever after, right? Well, for one, you probably can't leave a trail of carnage like that in your wake without it getting back to you, so leaving town immediately is pretty essential. Beyond that, though, the Driver makes a choice to remove himself from the Irene/Benicio equation. Even if all of the loose ends are tied up, the Driver has revealed something ugly inside of him- something that no doubt got him into his line of work in the first place but, more importantly, something that can turn him into a monster under certain circumstances. As a result, the Driver makes the choice save those who deserve better from himself, telling Irene, "I have to go somewhere and I don't think I can come back, but I just wanted you to know… getting to be around you and Benicio was the best thing that ever happened to me."

When the hammer comes out, shit gets real.


"I don't make movies; I make experiences," Nicolas Winding Refn recently told our own JimmyO. Even if DRIVE wasn't your thing, there's a good chance the experience or at least certain moments stuck with you. Hossein Amini's screenplay based on James Sallis' book makes for some tense and fascinating moments, with Refn and editor Matthew Newman letting scenes breathe and captivate rather than cutting away too quickly. The cast is about as perfect as it gets, with Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks, and the rest bringing a natural richness to their characters. Cliff Martinez provides a chilly, understated score, counterpointed by the few mesmerizing songs Refn inserts repeatedly into key moments. Finally, Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel deliver a stunning, colorful film while still portraying a more inelegant, realistic Los Angeles than we usually see on the big screen. There's something to be said for intimate films which serve as a meditation on a mood more than anything else, especially ones that take us on an entertaining ride in the process.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com

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