Movie Review: Drive

by Trey Hock on September 16, 2011

in Print Reviews

Drive” is probably gonna piss off a lot of casual movie-goers. Like “Fight Club” or “Heat,” the veneer that surrounds this film establishes an expectation that is quickly shattered once the film itself starts.

If you’re looking for an action piece filled with quick cuts or huge special effects, please stay at home. You’ll only ruin the experience for those who went to theater for a movie structured entirely on tone and style, which builds tension slowly and methodically throughout its hour and forty minutes.

The story in “Drive” couldn’t be more straightforward. A stunt driver and wheelman named only Driver (Ryan Gosling) gets caught up in a job-gone-wrong when he breaks his normal code and gets attached to his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother whose husband’s in jail.

This story, though compelling, just gives director Nicolas Winding Refn an excuse to build a powerful visual experience. The opening sequence, which shows a typical job for the Driver, is little more than a Leone-esque devotion to the style of the movie to follow.

Like the spaghetti westerns, there is little need for dialogue. The Driver is a stoic and silent character. Those that surround him say little more than he does. Character is built with a gesture, a small nod, and the way someone blinks or looks away. Words aren’t necessary. Refn endows his characters with depth through his use of light and frame.

Lighting is used masterfully, with our protagonist falling in and out of rich shadow as he drives through Los Angeles at night, or high-key moments of explosive and often disturbing violence. One must only look for the scorpion emblem on the back of the Driver’s signature jacket — the way it is lit — and you can tell whether the next moment will hold some violent outburst or a quick getaway.

Refn’s use of long dissolves to transition us from a thoughtful close-up in one scene to a wide-shot in the next is stunning. Faces linger and look over the action that follows. In one particularly memorable example, the Driver contemplates his options once the job has gone wrong. His face in close-up watches over the following shot, which shows him walking down the steps to a strip club. With hammer in hand and at the ready, he walks with purpose towards the confrontation with his pursuers.

Though it takes a back seat to the direction, the acting from the supporting cast is solid. Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman are compelling as West Coast crime bosses, and Bryan Cranston continues his streak of great performances in his role as a mechanic and set-up man for the Driver.

A surprisingly slow and quiet film that is both thoughtful and methodical, “Drive” illustrates Refn’s continued development as a contemporary master. I will be pleasantly surprised if “Drive” becomes a hit, but I doubt that it will. A number of people, grumpy that their appetites for lighter fare were not appeased, walked out of the screening I attended.

Its audience may end up being small, but for those of us who count ourselves among its members, “Drive” is a delight.

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 jess September 16, 2011 at 9:05 am

I’ll see anything with Ron Perlman in it. Well…except for that Conan movie….


2 Laurie September 16, 2011 at 9:20 am

I really enjoyed this movie. I was the only one out of the 4 of us in my group. I think they all wanted more action and dialog like the way recent movies have made them accustomed to. I loved the fact that the actions were speaking louder than the words.


3 Eric Melin September 16, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Me too, Laurie. Excited for people who think they are going to a straight action movie to get a methodically stylized 80s reference-filled neo noir with shocking moments of violence and virtually no dialogue from their lead actor.

Jess- Even “Season of the Witch”?


4 jess September 16, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Eric – I haven’t seen it, but it looks like something I’d sit through while working on something else.


5 Laurie September 16, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Eric: I’m glad you used the term “neo noir”. I was using film noir to explain it to people. I wasn’t familiar with the updated term. I’ll be interested to see how it does this weekend at the box office.


6 Trey Hock September 16, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Laurie – whenever you’re with the three people from your group who didn’t like Drive, just keep referring to yourself as “the smart one.” “The awesome one” or “the one with exceptional taste” would also work.

Jess – Do you have the Beauty and the Beast box set?

Eric – Your take on “Drive” as a guest on the Walt Bodine show was great.


7 jess September 17, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Okay, fine. I just watch the Hellboys and City of Lost Children all the time. I admit it. But I’ll still go see Drive.


8 Tony T September 19, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Trey’s review of this movie is right on the money. Your Leone reference was perfect because I was sitting in the theatre thinking the character of “Driver” was just like an Eastwood figure from the 70’s. The first thing I noticed was the hot pink credits, mix that with Kavinsky’s “Night Call”, and the night drive threw me right back into the 80’s and made me think of “To Live and Die in LA” and “Miami Vice”. One of my favorite shots from the movie, and you have to look closely is the first interaction between Driver and Irene in her apartment: Irene is on the left of the screen and driver is off camera except you can see him in the reflection from the mirror which also holds a picture of her husband and son. Make your own inference. Awesome show.


9 Tony T September 19, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Forgot one thing…the strip club scene, driver is destroying the guy and all the strippers are motionless and expressionless…loved it.


10 Dambro September 27, 2011 at 10:42 pm

I saw this last week, and being big into that unquantifiable sub-genre that is “car movies,” I really thought thought that I was going to be able to add to this discussion.

Alas, between the podcast itself and the comments both here and on, all the bases seem to have been covered.

Late ’70s/early ’80s style? Check.

Use of the term “noir”? Check, although does it really qualify as a “neo noir”?

Mentions of Leone and Peckinpah? Check.

References to “The Driver” and “To Live and Die in LA”? Check.

I guess I can throw out a bit of trivia regarding the pawn shop chase. The Driver boosts a Ford Mustang in order to pull that job. The unseen baddies arrive in in a Chrysler 300, which is built on the Chrysler LX platform. The same platform that the current Dodge Charger is derived from.

What famous car chase features a Mustang hero-car being chased by mysterious baddies in a Charger?

If you don’t know this, you hate movies.


11 Trey Hock September 28, 2011 at 4:01 am


Glad to hear that Eric and I covered all the bases. It’s easy on movies that are as good as “Drive” because it inspires solid discussion.

I’ll admit that I didn’t know the answer to your trivia question, but not because I hate movies (I think it’s pretty apparent that that is not the case), but because I don’t know cars. At all. I wouldn’t have known the style of cars from “Drive” if you hadn’t just mentioned them here. So I appreciate your trivia and look forward to the answer to your question in the comments.


12 Dambro September 28, 2011 at 6:30 pm

You don’t have to know cars to know that the answer is “Bullitt.” I’ll give you a pass though ’cause the way I got to the question was a little convoluted. In fact, the whole thing could be a coincidence. I only suspect that it’s not.


13 Sam January 28, 2012 at 11:50 pm

I know this feed has been dead for a while, but I feel that I have some decent input to the past debate.
This movie is a lot deeper than some people think, for three reasons:
1. The Driver was never a violent person beforehand as he always said he would not carry a gun (so it should not be played off as a badass action flick with slight romantic tendencies – the action and violence only stems from the deep seated feelings of warranted protection he feels for Irene and her son and the need to survive), even when he threatens the man in the dinner it is only to protect the privacy of his double life – forcefully, without direct confrontation. He only started becoming violent when outsiders began to threaten and kill (literally and metaphorical) the only 3 people he truly knew and loved.

2. In the elevator scene people may skip over the fact that “the driver” believed he could potentially be killed (at the sight of a gun) and the one thing he felt he needed to do beforehand was to finally and directly express his love for Irene.

3. And, as some people wondered why he didn’t go back to her if everyone was dead, when you watch the movie again (for maybe 80-90% of the last 30 minutes), it’s very faint, but the driver actually has tears in his eyes and cries slightly because he knows he’ll never see the last two people he loved again. He only stops tearing after he drives, the one last thing left in his life that calms him down. He may also be reflecting upon how misplaced his endeavors have been since his double life landed him in this heartbreaking situation. And he also ceases crying when he’s taking care of his situation.


14 Trey Hock January 29, 2012 at 9:54 am


You don’t have to convince me to love Drive any more than I already do. It’s easily my top film of 2011.

You make some interesting points that gets at the power of this film. The inherent and intentional ambiguity could easily have us debating the small details and their meanings for days.

Nice insights. Keep these comments coming.


15 Sam January 30, 2012 at 12:09 am

Haha, yes, I didn’t mean for my comment to be as up-front and direct as it was (I had copied this answer from someone’s question, whether the movie was simply an action film, and hadn’t edited my post).

I’m glad to see so many people who truly understand a good movie though, as a lot of people in our society miss the details when they see any movie. And that really disappoints me, especially when I attempt to show someone a great film.

Thanks for the quick response too, very conversational.


16 Trey Hock January 30, 2012 at 4:13 pm

No problem, Sam.

I love a good up-front and spicy response any day of the week. Let me know if I can help you as you convince the uninitiated.


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