The Driver is the best at what he does. “You put this kid behind the wheel, there’s nothing he can’t do.” He doesn’t rely on luck and spontaneous driving; he knows what he’s doing. He studies his environment, analyzes human behavior and acts accordingly.
As he drives you can tell that every move was planned ahead of time, every turn calculated with absolute precision. His plan is unpredictable; that’s why watching it unfold in real time is so damn electrifying. He comes out of nowhere surprising his foes and disappears in plain sight just as easily. The driver is always in total control of the situation.
All this is projected in one of the most intense opening scenes in recent memory. The driver is a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. “Drive” begins at night minutes before a getaway. Most chase scenes lack this kind of intensity, for the driver doesn’t rely on sheer speed to grab our attention.
He drifts from his day job to his night job unchallenged. In fact the driver is so good at what he does, his remarkable street maneuvering and stunts seem effortlessly achieved. He must have felt the thrill of it once but at this point in his life he’s overconfident and doesn’t feel any kick to the dangerous line of work. Maybe this isolation is the reason he seems sad and unhappy. His own brilliance drove him to a state of loneliness that fueled his need to find companionship.If you read any review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive”, you’re bound to see critics and reviewers pointing out references to different movies, “Taxi Driver”, “Risky Business”, “Shane”, “Scorpio Rising”, “Bullitt”, “Collateral”, “Le Samourai”, and countless other films. While “Drive” does in fact reference a lot of films, it somehow remains fresh, unique and unlike any of the previous mentioned. Refn took a deep look at the history of film, recognized what he admired in various films and used those elements to paint his own canvas. The story of “Drive” is one that has been told numerous times but Refn reinvented the plot using hypnotic mise-en-scenethat steadily plunges the viewer into a bloody fairy tale. If you haven’t seen this instant cult classic by now, I advise you to stop reading as I’ll discuss scenes in detail.
After the almost dialogue-free yet surprisingly involving opening scene, the screen fades to black and cuts to a beautiful nightscape view of Los Angeles reminiscent of the LA Michael Mann showed us in “Collateral” and “Heat”. There’s an 80’s vibe to the title sequence as the electro track by Kavinsky called “Nightcall” kicks in and pink-“Risky Business”-like font appears over various striking shots of our protagonist driving around the city and moving into a new apartment. Somewhere in there we see the first of four key elevator scenes that display the development of a bond between the driver and Irene (Carey Mulligan), his innocent looking neighbor.
Our driver walks towards the elevator as Irene walks out of it. This is their first encounter. After they walk past one another, the scene cuts to a POV shot from within the elevator. We see Irene as she walks away when the elevator door closes between them. Not much happens here in terms of interaction, as the characters don’t know each other at this point. The second elevator scene occurs right after the title sequence. Our protagonist is on his way up when the elevator stops and Irene walks in. He asks her what floor she headed to and she replies “Four. Thanks.” He doesn’t push a button as it’s already lit. They experience an awkward silence on the way up. The driver catches Irene looking at him and smiles for a brief second and they both look away. This happens a lot throughout the film, their chemistry is delightful because it feels real and natural. By the end of that elevator journey they barely know one another but at least they know they’re neighbors living on the same floor.
The third elevator sequence occurs after her car engine breaks down and he drives her home. This time, there’s a third party in the elevator, a young boy- her son. The boy and the driver look at one another for the duration of the ride. They’re playing the blinking game (seeing who will last longer without blinking). He wins but that’s not important. What’s important is the fact that he starts to bond with the kid. Afterwards he drops her groceries at her place and they get to know one another a bit more. He learns that her husband is in prison and she finds out he’s a stunt man. Following this proper introduction their bond strengthens. She later drops by to get her car fixed, and while fixing it he plays the blinking game with kid again. Their way back is one of my favorite scenes in the film. He asks her “Hey do you want to see something?” before taking Irene and her son on a fun ride down an empty closed down highway. Bright sunlight strikes their faces, as “A Real Hero” plays in the background. This is probably the first time we see the driver genuinely happy. By the end of the unofficial date he carries Irene’s sleeping son over his shoulder to the apartment. Irene watches this kind fatherly act and she’s almost love-struck. It’s a beautiful moment.
More scenes of the driver spending time with the family follow including one where Irene puts her hand on his, their fingers lace together as he drives. Another worth mentioning comes after the driver has a talk with Bernie Ross, a ruthless gangster played by Albert Brooks. Through their common link, the Driver’s friend and acting agent Shannon (Bryan Cranston), Ross is willing to invest thousands of dollars to back up the driver as a potential professional racer. Their dialogue is a subtle threat from the gangster to the driver. He shares a tale about how Nino (Ron Perlman) broke Shannon’s legs after being disappointed.
The purpose of their talk is to scare the driver into giving it his all, because he wouldn’t like Ross’ right hand man when he’s angry. The driver doesn’t respond but a facial expression eclipses his face not of fear but of worry. That same expression can be seen moments later when the driver is watching a cartoon with Benicio. He asks the kid how he can tell that one of the cartoon characters is the bad guy. “Because he’s a shark.”, he assures him. “There’s no good sharks?” he asks. “No. I mean just look at him. Does he look like a good guy to you?” The same look of worry takes over his face. He’s thinking of Bernie Ross concerned about what he’s getting into.
That’s when the tone of the film begins to shift from romance to crime. The exact turning point however comes later when Irene’s husband comes home. “Drive” surprised me in many ways; the portrayal of the husband is one of those pleasant surprises. Betraying conventional cinema, the ex-con who returns home just as things seemed to get better for Irene and her son turns out to be a decent guy embarrassed of his past and willing to change. Oscar Isaac plays the husband, Standard, and while I’m probably in the minority here, I personally believe he gave the best male supporting performance in the film. His speech in the welcome back party is very tricky for it requires the performer to convince viewers that he’s not a bad person and asks the audience to forgive the fact that he’s interrupting the film’s central romance. Isaac does exactly that by delivering his lines with honesty and shame. We can’t help but forgive him and in return feel sorry for Irene’s current dilemma.
Through a series of shots cutting back and forth between them, we can see that both have the other in mind, they seem sad. The driver then does what any guy would do in a situation like this; he goes to a bar. Once there, a man recognizes the getaway driver and proposes a heist job. The driver probably upset about the husband situation, stressing on the gangster threat and unpleased by the fact that the guy is asking him to take part a second heist, flips out with a badass line fans will be quoting for years, “How ’bout this. You shut your mouth, or I’ll kick your teeth down your throat and I’ll shut it for you.” The driver releases a vicious stare and the guy backs off.
This is the first time we get to see the driver’s violent side and the violence only builds up from this point on. Refn understands how to display violence. He managed it well in his previous two pictures, “Valhallang Rising” and the excellent “Bronson” and here his approach is even more impressive. His use of violent content is relevant here for unlike most pictures it serves a purpose. Up till that point not a drop of blood has been spilled and as far as we know the driver is a romantic loner. But then he shocks us with a verbal threat that is too detailed for any set of ears. Later we see him blow Standard’s killers to pieces with a shotgun and stab a gangster’s chest with a shower curtain rod. The driver slowly moves off camera his face entirely covered in blood.
Now the audience pretty much knows how dangerous and violent the driver can get and we’re quite surprised by this sudden transformation. Right from the start we get the sense that there’s something mysterious about him, we don’t know his past and don’t need to but Refn gradually peels off layers of characterization till we get to the core of the driver, a trapped monster.
This eventually leads to the most violent scene in the picture and probably the most memorable one too, the fourth and final elevator scene. By now the driver is a wanted man, the gangsters he killed happen to be connected to Nino and Ross. After explaining how he was helping Standard pay a debt from prison resulting in his death, Irene slaps the driver. He looks at the ground in shame; “I just thought you could get out of here if you wanted. I could come with you. I could look out for you.” His almost pathetic communication skills remind me of a frustrated Travis Bickle confused of what went wrong after Betsy rejects him for taking her to a porn theater. He looks up at her and the elevator doors open. One of Nino’s hitmen is in there; unknowingly they hop in for the ride.
Notice how this is the first time we see the elevator descend, silently to inevitable doom. Most of the scene takes place in slow motion, which only adds to the building tension. When the driver spots a gun tucked in the man’s suit. All sound fades away, he extends his arm and pushes Irene to a corner, the lights dim, Cliff Martinez’ haunting score breaks the silence as the driver kisses Irene in probably the most passionate kiss I’ve seen on film in quite a while. This is the best-directed scene of the year. We see all elements of mise-en-scene poetically merge in harmony. Cinematically, this is the most visually artistic moment in “Drive”. Dimed lights light up the scene again, the music fades away and slow motion is no longer used when suddenly both males attempt to strike one another. Seconds later the driver knocks the man to the floor and stomps his head repeatedly. We see his boot smashing into the dead hitman’s face till nothing is left but bits and pieces. I love how the scene switches from utter beauty to disgusting violence in a fraction of second.
Prior to this scene, only the viewer has witnessed the driver’s violent nature yet even such aggression is bound to shock anyone. A stunned Irene moves to the corner and watches the frenzied attack in fear. The elevator door opens and she backs away. Driver turns around and looks at Irene who’s looking back at him in complete shock. Mirroring the first elevator scene the doors close between them. Only this time it does so while she looks at out protagonist. She sees him in his true form. Driver probably preferred to conceal his boiling monstrous side from Irene but when cornered and with no choice he kissed her goodbye.
The final act is upon us; a showdown between the driver and Ross is foreseeable. He calls the boss and asks, “You know the story about the scorpion of the frog?” For those of you don’t know the fable, it goes like this. A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across the river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion insists that if it stung the frog, both would drown. The frog finally agrees to carry the scorpion across the river. Midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why he did this, the scorpion point out that it’s in his nature to do so.
“Your friend Nino didn’t make it across the river.” This was symbolically expressed almost quite literally in a visually beautiful scene where the driver forces Nino’s head below the water. Erin Benach’s choice of having a big scorpion on the hero’s iconic jacket makes perfect sense now. In the fable both the scorpion and the frog meet their demise, so if familiar with the tale viewers would expect the same to happen to both protagonist and antagonist. The driver knows for Irene and Benicio to be safe, he has to go. It’s the only way.
The driver meets Bernie Ross and indeed both stab one another in broad daylight. Two shadows fall to the ground, one barely alive the other dead, we see the driver with a fatal wound to his stomach.
Hitchcock once said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.” The following shot is a perfect example of a director interacting with his audience. The camera pans up revealing the bloodied and perfectly still driver sitting in the front seat of his car. We reach his head motionless on the seat’s headrest, his eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking, piercing empty space. When I first saw this scene, I studied his face in search of the slightest proof of life, a twitch, a blink, anything. The frame remains fixed for quite some time. At this point we can’t afford to blink because we could miss the fate of our hero. Refn is directly forcing the viewer to play the blinking game with the driver. He blinks and drives.