Retrospective: Drive (2011)

I’m torn about this review in two respects. Firstly, a movie that has to be watched twice to really ‘get’ is a problem. Yes, some movies improve after you have seen them more than once and everyone has favourite movies that they see over and over again but a movie which feels so different after a second viewing has to be a factor considered in part of this retrospective.

What is Drive? The obvious answer is that it’s the movie that made Ryan Gosling really cool, edgy and violent. But what’s its core? There are three big things. Firstly, it’s a glorified, very long and pretentious music video as it has one of the best uses of music of any film I have ever seen featuring artists such as College, Desire and Kavinsky which all combine with bare minimum dialog and some very pretty shots, fitting with the music perfectly. The limited plot and the generally very poor dialogue (not poorly acted, just poorly written) make it a very visual movie with a very strong visual motif. It feels like a short film that has been lengthened but no one told the scriptwriter so there are huge empty spaces where there should be something and instead there are static silent scenes between the Driver (Ryan Gosling), Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her family. These empty spaces annoy me and bring me onto how I see this movie as a tribute to the older thriller movies of the 1960s, in particular Point Blank, Vanishing Point and Bullitt, all of which include either unnamed protagonists, great car chases and lastly and possibly most importantly, surprisingly extreme violence and unexpected moments.


As a music video it works wonderfully as its music really fits well, especially during the important second viewing. According to my unofficial poll of people who have seen the film who were indifferent or disliked it the first time, they really enjoyed it the second time and I believe this is partly because they were able to relax about the holes in the plot and not care so much about the coldness and lack of motivation for the principle character or criminals who should be more interesting, with the exception of Ron Pearlman’s gangster who at least has some characterisation. The music and visuals are powerful even in quiet scenes. One particularly memorable moment involves Irene and the Driver together whilst the music fades between muffled and loud and it’s just a really great example of a movie doing the basics well.


The movie is surprisingly based off a book but one which jumps in time and was considered by the scriptwriter as an absolute pain to develop. Nicolas Winding Refn is a director best known for visuals and action, which he delivers but the dialogue for whatever reason sucks because it’s trying to explain too much by crushing huge amounts of exposition into huge sentences. The character of Shannon (Bryan Cranston) suffers particularly badly because at any opportunity he launches into extended dialogue about whatever is at hand. Its scripting betrays its origins as a shorter movie. Its opening and first 40 minutes are really good and have a relatively interesting story of a moonlighting driver who falls for a pretty neighbour, saving her from peril and her own past. This suddenly stops and then there is a very flabby middle where nothing much happens until he decides to help on a job for Irene’s husband to pay off his debt. Then it starts to get back on track with the criminality and very gory slow motion violence until it reaches a rather unsatisfying ending which leaves much unexplained. These factors make me like the idea that this is an extended short movie but the script couldn’t hold it up.


Another appealing idea is that it’s a tribute to older movies. You can see lots of Point Blank for example, with the near silent hero who has a dealing with the mob and willing to be extremely violent if necessary, even if he just wants something simple whilst the gangsters keep complicating things. The next are Vanishing Point and Bullitt, both of which focus on cars and have long car chases in California. While feeling mysterious and deep, both have rather flat characters much like Drive and the main interest is what they can do rather than who they are. They don’t have the usual motivations and personality but they are just very good at their jobs and the rest is left up to the viewer to understand their quirks. The Driver’s jacket and the car are the best example of this as they have almost as much screen time as he does (a modified Chevrolet Chevelle Monte Carlo SS, 1973). In a way this is also a tribute, especially as it’s a car which came right at the end of the muscle car boom of the late 1960s which was highly influential in the movies as cool, cheap fast cars with excellent engines. What Drive sadly missed wasthat  by having a near silent protagonist, everyone else needed to work harder to make him sympathetic and the dialogue has to be really good. Both factors are missing which is a great shame.

This movie is extremely frustrating. It is a good movie but it has some major flaws that stop it from being a great movie. The fact that it requires two watches for the movie to really come out is very difficult to justify. What’s the point of watching a movie twice if only the second viewing is worthwhile? The dialogue and misuse of the fantastic Carey Mulligan is a shame as she’s given so little to work with and everything is so reliant on meaningful looks. This is an action movie, not a French drama.

So, as I have spent a long time coming to a rather inconclusive look at this movie all I can add is if you didn’t like it the first time, it might be worth looking again.

One quick addendum – it’s also become quite influential in popular culture, not only for its soundtrack but it has, for example, formed a whole games series, Hotline Miami, which was inspired by the movie and has a central character in a white driving jacket.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl


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