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Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn


Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a film about watching, observing, and absorbing. Its cinematography and production design lure us into looking more than listening. And when we look, we’re captivated by the choreography of the camera and the color within each frame.

The film includes several tracking shots, some of which are excellently executed as the characters walk towards the camera then stop then continue. These tracking shots are not elaborate and do not announce themselves like the more noticeable shots made by Lubezki, instead they ask us to move our eyes in the frame and look at more than just the tracked subject. Within the frame there are more than bodies, we can see facial expressions and subtle hand and eye movements, all of which illustrate relationships between characters. The camera does not track characters; it tracks the growth of tension between characters.

However, it is color that is the film’s highlighting characteristic. The film’s dominated by shades of blue, only opposed by orange and yellow hues in the presence of Irene (Carey Mulligan). The balance between blue and orange is beautifully painted in many of the shot-reverse-shot scenes involving the driver (perfected by Ryan Gosling’s expressive eyes) and Irene. Our eyes shift between the driver’s cold desolate blue aura and the warm embracing orange halo enveloping Irene, feeling the driver’s longing for her warm affection.


Although the film invites us to look, its protagonist rarely looks at himself. The low angle camera shots of the driver, the tracking shots following him, the close-ups on his face and eyes in the rear view mirror all objectify him as the main center of our attention and gaze. Yet the driver’s own eyes do not wander where ours do. The multiple dissolve shots of his face and the city, or his face and Irene’s, convey a message of one lost in others, be they people or environments; one looking for a host, a home. We do not get a lot of background information about the driver’s past. We’re only allowed a limited amount of information about what he does: he drives. The first shot alone is a concise introduction to his identity: his yellow scorpion jacket, his maps and bags, and his voice during a phone call. That’s how he is presented to us: a job, a tool, a means to an end. Little to no extra details about his character are given later. His emotions are revealed through his reactions to Irene and her child, to Standard (Oscar Isaac), to Shannon (Bryan Cranston), but none of these are unraveled elaborately to show us who the driver really is.

The intensity of car chases and murders are enhanced by the atypical absence of music. The suspense is not roped around thrilling music but tightly wound by the sound of silence. Our anticipation is upped by camerawork and the accompanying revving engines and screeching tires.


It’s only in the second half of the film that we get a glimpse into a darker corner of the driver’s persona. Refn is known for his blatant violence, at times romanticized as in Only God Forgives, and at others served cold as in Drive. The most important scene which exposes the driver’s nature through the use of violence is the elevator scene. His eyes see the stranger’s gun, his hands move Irene away, his lips kiss hers. The shot is beautifully accentuated through lighting as the elevator lights dim and only the driver and Irene are highlighted amidst their passionate kiss; a stolen moment, an escape from reality, salvation. The lights come back, the driver turns around and bashes the stranger’s head with his foot mercilessly, to death. Irene steps out of the elevator terrified and the doors close on the driver’s bloodied face; a stranger. The juxtaposition of the kiss and the murder in the same setting demonstrates the paradoxical personality, or rather the possibility of a natural amalgam of purity and impurity in one body; this is human nature. The dual character is hinted at when we find out that by day the driver works as a stunt driver in movies, where he dons on a mask to protect his face (or his identity?), the same mask he wears during one of his later murders. Now we get a closer look into the driver’s troubled soul. He tells his clients he doesn’t carry a gun and that implants a seed of respect in our minds; we know he sheds no blood, he’s humane. After the several murders he commits throughout the second half of the film – using his hands, a bat, a hammer, and other basic tools – Refn grabs that seed and burns it in front of us, in sweat and blood.