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Ten Years Later, ‘Drive’ Still Goes

In 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn broke into the mainstream with the help of a laconic Ryan Gosling, a synth-heavy soundtrack, and a hyperviolence that divided audiences

Film District/Ringer illustration

Nicolas Winding Refn prefers shooting his films chronologically, so as we reflect on the 10-year anniversary of Drive, we might as well start with the opening sequence. Using minimal exposition—an appropriate decision considering the lead character is never given a name—the movie establishes that our protagonist (played by Ryan Gosling) is a getaway driver for hire within Los Angeles’s criminal underbelly. The Driver—that’s what we’ll call him—gives his associates a five-minute window to do their thing, a half-assed robbery that Refn has little interest in explaining. (To paraphrase an iconic quote from a movie whose director Refn is trying to emulate: The driving is the juice.) The ensuing car chase is less high octane than cerebral: a cat-and-mouse game between the Driver and the cops, wordless save for the police scanner and a Clippers game playing on the radio. Of course, that Clippers game isn’t just background noise, as the ingenious climax sees the Driver hide in plain sight at the Staples Center parking garage just as the fourth quarter comes to a close.

Released in the same year as Fast Five, a delirious blockbuster that culminates with a giant vault tearing through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Drive’s bravura opening highlighted that there’s more than one way to execute a nail-biting car chase, especially when operating on an indie budget. If the Fast & Furious franchise represented where Hollywood was headed—its street racers turning into physics-defying superheroes that would compete with the likes of Marvel—then Drive was a throwback molded by neo-noir classics like Bullitt, The Driver, and Thief. As far as first impressions go, Drive’s opening car chase was one hell of a table-setter; it’s among the strongest sequences of Refn’s entire career. At the same time, though, Drive is a microcosm of what makes the Danish auteur so polarizing.

While he already had seven feature films under his belt, Drive was Refn’s commercial breakthrough, grossing over $75 million and landing on many critics’ year-end lists in 2011. But Drive’s critical adoration, which also included a Best Director win at the Cannes Film Festival, belies a more uneven response among mainstream audiences. The film earned an underwhelming C-minus rating on Cinemascore, likely due to the fact that it bucked the expectation of a more straightforward action thriller. One woman in Michigan even filed a lawsuit (!) against Drive’s distributors over its misleading trailers. (I sure hope nobody sues James Wan for Malignant’s bonkers third act.)

Perhaps that feeling of a bait-and-switch is elevated because Drive initially seems like a more conventional film, with the opening sequence followed by a developing romance between the Driver and his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan). In fact, a not-insignificant portion of the film is admirably restrained—the Driver and Irene share loving glances at each other like they’re in the middle of a fairy tale. But when the Driver and Irene’s feel-good vibes start to sour, beginning with her husband Standard’s (Oscar Isaac) release from prison and culminating in a pawn shop heist gone wrong, Drive explodes with the kind of ludicrous yet artful ultraviolence more aligned with its director’s sensibilities. Some folks probably tapped out when Christina Hendricks’s head exploded like a watermelon, or when Albert Brooks stabbed a dude in the eye with a fork, or when Gosling caved in a goon’s skull with his foot. (The sickos, meanwhile, were like “Yes … ha ha ha … yes!”)

It’s in these gnarly moments that Refn channels his natural impulse as a provocateur and fits Drive into the rest of his body of work. (To wit: Refn’s previous film, Valhalla Rising, features Mads Mikkelsen as a one-eyed Norse warrior who rips several people apart with his bare hands.) In the context of the movie, though, Drive’s second half is a riveting descent into chaos: a starry, neon-lit L.A. curdling into a bloody (but still neon-lit) nightmare. The grimy transformation is even represented in a more literal sense, as the Driver puts on a prosthetic mask he steals from his day job as a stunt driver—a look that falls somewhere between Michael Myers and Karl Havoc—to drown Ron Perlman’s mob boss Nino in the Pacific Ocean.

But beneath the splatterings of gore and the film’s laconic pacing, Drive had enough potential as a crowd-pleaser that Refn was earmarked to make the jump to blockbusters, where, presumably in the mind of a studio executive, the auteur’s rougher edges could be sanded out. Indeed, Refn flirted with a move to the mainstream—see: The Equalizer reboot, the James Bond entry Spectre, and a Logan’s Run remake—but instead of going down that route, he doubled down on the controversial, gross-out moments that turned most moviegoers and even some critics off of his work. The result: Only God Forgives, which was booed at Cannes; The Neon Demon, which was booed and received a 17-minute standing ovation at Cannes and reportedly caused two fights to break out; and Too Old to Die Young, a TV series so uncompromisingly weird that its closest analogue is probably Twin Peaks: The Return.

But while Refn going mainstream is a fascinating what-if—is there a world in which Spectre is actually good?!—it never seemed like a good fit. After all, if Drive is Refn at his most accessible, then he’s probably better left operating on the fringes. Refn might never return to the near-universal critical acclaim he earned with Drive, but he still has his share of ardent admirers, and 10 years on, the film has aged gracefully. The ’80s-inspired soundtrack, which feels like a gateway drug to getting really into synthwave, is receiving a vinyl reissue next month; and you bet your ass faithful (and somewhat pricey) re-creations of the Driver’s white scorpion jacket can be found on Etsy. It’s a fitting legacy for Drive, which resonates for its iconography and overall cool-guy vibe more than any particular moment in the film’s lean narrative.

If that seems like a backhanded compliment, it’s not meant to be: Refn always has been a purveyor of beautiful imagery rather than, say, of memorable dialogue. (Not only does the Driver never get a name, but he barely speaks, so it’s a good thing he looks like Ryan Gosling.) If anything, it’s a testament to Refn’s visual mastery and aesthetic choices that, a decade on, Drive has such staying power. At a moment when action movies like Fast Five were upping the ante, Drive proved that, even if there wasn’t much rattling under the hood, there was still plenty to admire about an old-school neo-noir made with an abundance of style and a protagonist adhering to a simple ethos: “I drive.”