Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 work is one of the most stylish, nuanced films I have ever seen, and I’m going to tell you why it’s my favourite.
For the duration it feels as if you’re holding onto your breath, teetering on the edge of something fantastic, waiting for a release of some kind; a kiss, a murder, even just a voice. It completely controls you until its end and captures your imagination even after the credits roll.
But that’s just my bias talking. I’m going to take you through three main aspects of this film which make it such a rewarding watch, both the first time and the tenth…
Colour and Palette
Refn’s use of colour in his films has developed into a key marker of his directiorial style. Bright, garish neons are placed at odds with gloomy scenery to create vivid and dreamlike frames. You need only look at the poster for Drive next to his later works such as The Neon Demon (2016) and Only God Forgives (2013) to mark a distinct aesthetic:
Although in its early stages in Drive, the fluorescent motifs are still present; both the opening and closing credits presented in a hot pink, 1980s lettering . But it is the more specific use of colour and palette which makes Drive such an intriguing and absorbing watch in terms of its visuals. Themes are typified not just by outright dialogue or physical action, but by the symbolic use of colour. The Driver’s criminal life as a getaway driver is synonymised with blues and cool tones, whereas the life he strives for, a life in the world of Irene and her son Benicio, is represented with warmer tones of amber and orange. Just look at these shots (sorry for the occasional bad quality):
Refn himself has commented in interviews that he is colourblind and is unable to see mid-colours, and as such his films have extremities of colour with lots of contrast, otherwise he ‘wouldn’t be able to see it’. This key marker of Refn’s style has become a cornerstone of both his cinematic legacy and why his works have such a re-watchable quality. Every shot’s colour and lighting choice is exacted and determined, making for a highly intelligent and rewarding viewing experience.
The soundtrack and score to this film are to die for. Firmly of a 1980s tenor, artists such as Chromatics, College, and Kavinsky with their oozing retro nostalgia are perfectly suited to moderate the harsh undertones of the film’s content. The counterbalancing of the masculinity of the car world and the comparative femininity of the music was a conscious choice for Refn. Bringing together these elements creates a oddly functional equilibrium, allowing the film to straddle the realms of thriller and art-house drama with unfaltering grace.
[Spoilers ahead – they will be in blue].
Where some films are praised for their drama and impact, one of Drive‘s strongest aspects is its restraint. Nothing is superfluous. Much of the dialogue from the James Sallis novel upon which it is based was stripped away. Refn has commented upon using silence as a core feature of his films, as ‘it forces the audience to concentrate on what they’re seeing, because silence is pure emotions, it has no logic, it goes straight to the heart.’ [Interview with Vice, 21/11/2011]. In Drive, this use of silence makes it all the more absorbing.
What is also important to appreciate is the restraint in music use. Though the soundtrack itself is undeniably bold and is a defining feature of this film, it is employed and withheld at just the right moments. The title sequence is backed by a steadily pumping, 1980s style electronic beat provided by Kavinsky’s Nightcall – which, incidentally is utterly perfect for setting the tone of Drive. However, scenes which would usually warrant tense music from other films are scoreless. For instance, when Driver is threatening Cook with a bullet and a hammer, or while the protagonist chases down and kills Nino, there is no music. This makes these moments all the more stark and all the more unexpected.
The way in which violence is dealt with is also admirable in its lack of gratuitousness. When it does occur it is sudden and unexpected and unpretentious. It is what it is, and is it not presented as any more or any less. There are a handful of moments which show gore, specifically when Blanche is shot, or when Shannon’s wrist is slit open by Bernie, but these do not last for long and are not overly dramatic or flamboyant. There seems to be no gore for the sake of attempting shock value, only that which is necessitated by the plot.
So there you have it. I hope if you have not yet seen this film then you are encouraged to watch it, and if you have then you have perhaps noticed something new about this gorgeous piece of film-making.