Drive: A Retrospective One Decade On

by Tom Babicki

As well as being my first true obsession as a ‘serious’ film fan, Nicolas Winding-Refn’s galvanic masterpiece Drive (2011) was the film that defined to me everything that was cool during my teenage years. To this day, its influence hangs over my everyday life through my fondness for electronic music and garish satin jackets.

In late 2018, I finally got the chance to see Drive on the big screen at my local independent cinema. It felt like my adolescence was coming full circle, having first seen the film on DVD in 2012, aged 12, and then like clockwork once per year ever since.

Though, rather than the usual independent cinema crowd of upper-class 40-somethings and pretentious nerds, the audience was made up almost entirely of other males in their late teens. It was the moment that I realised my experiences haven’t been half as unique as I had convinced myself they were. The stylistic totem that Drive had proven to be to me for years was likewise of an entire generation.

Today, just over a decade after its initial release, the enduring impact of Drive continues to bleed into cinema, art and our everyday culture.

Where it all began…

Originally from Denmark, Drive director Nicolas Winding-Refn tore onto the scene in 1996 with his white-hot debut Pusher, about a low-level heroin dealer in Copenhagen. Following this, he went on to produce a few flops, going broke in the process, eventually writing and directing two more films in the Pusher franchise, as well as the cult hit Bronson in 2008.

After releasing another commercial flop, Valhalla Rising (2009), it seemed to be make-or-break time for Winding-Refn’s career. In an apparent attempt to generate some cash, the director turned to Hollywood, eventually being asked to meet Ryan Gosling to discuss a project that the actor had been working to get the ball rolling on.

So the story goes; a feverish Winding-Refn, stoned on flu medication, meets Gosling in a restaurant and struggles to maintain his concentration as the two talk-over Gosling’s project. Abruptly, Winding-Refn asks Gosling to drive him home, and the actor reluctantly agrees. Laid out on the backseat of Gosling’s car in a daze, the director begins singing along to the radio and declares; “I know what Drive is. It’s about a man who drives around at night listening to pop music, and that’s his emotional relief.” And the seed was sewn.

The director and the actor…

Drive debuted in late 2011 to mass critical acclaim, even receiving a nomination for the Palme D’Or at Cannes and scooping the Best Director prize for Winding-Refn. Despite virtually redefining the American independent cinema landscape, Nicolas Winding-Refn did little to leverage the film’s success, and immediately returned to the fringe of his form. His next film Only God Forgives (2013), which also starred Ryan Gosling, proved to be one of the most divisive releases of the decade, simultaneously receiving multitude of 5-star reviews and topping several ‘Worst Films of the Year’ lists.

This highlights an admirable commitment to the arts; whilst Drive, even with its graphic violence and crude themes, was palatable to a more generic audience than his previous work, this was merely circumstantial and not an attempt by the director to break into the mainstream.

His experiences on Drive have clearly had some lasting impact, however. His two most recent projects, The Neon Demon (2015) and the remarkable limited series Too Old to Die Young (2018), both plunder the same seedy, neon underworld of Los Angeles. Though, he was careful not to be pigeonholed following Drive’s success, evidenced by his statement to the films composer Clint Mansell when scoring Only God Forgives that ‘I don’t want Drive’.

Although hard to imagine now, Drive marks a significant turning point for Ryan Gosling’s career. In the mainstream, at the time he was best known for his role in the romantic drama The Notebook (2004). This is despite a phenomenal run of leading roles in some of the most affecting American-independent films of the 2000s, such as Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Blue Valentine (2010), and, my personal favourite, Half Nelson (2006).

Gosling now holds a place as one of the most sought-after leading men in Hollywood, though still maintains a firm foothold in his independent roots, working with talents such as Damien Chazelle and Shane Black, as well as continuing his partnership with Winding-Refn. In 2014, he directed his first feature, Lost River; a Lynchian portrait of a decaying Detroit, which itself draws a good amount of aesthetic influence (and a few soundtrack cues) from Drive.

Because the internet…

In recent years, Drive has often found itself dragged into arguments about toxic masculinity and debates over the alleged glorification of the violent streaks that the films protagonist embodies. As with countless films before it, such as Taxi Driver (1976) and American Psycho (2000) among others, this stems from a misinterpretation of the source material by a vocal minority of the fan base.

In Drive, the violent nature of The Driver is, if anything, the characters very downfall and the thing that alienates him from the lifestyle he pines for. Regardless of this, these discussions often overlook the fact that it’s okay for characters in any medium to be ambiguous. As an audience, we are allowed to empathise with the socially awkward romantic plight of The Driver whilst not condoning him violently attacking a man in a lift…

The same revelation I had on that night in 2018 seems to have been identified years before in a few corners of the internet, where The Driver has become an ironic symbol of aesthetic loner-ism. The film has spawned some memorable memes which are equal parts affectionate and deriding towards the film’s fandom, who perhaps based a little too much of their personality on the film during their youth…

Tomas Babicki is a second-year Film Studies student the University of Leicester, aspiring to a career in film journalism. You can follow him on Instagram here.

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