It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason some films so efficiently get the cultural zeitgeist into a stranglehold. Often, it is merely a case of right film, right time, with Star Wars releasing at the dawn of the blockbuster crave and The Matrix capturing the frenetic energy of the promise of the new millennium with its technological vision. Though, for the Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn, the success of Drive was lightning in a bottle, arriving with such stylish arrogance that it captured the attention of an audience baying for gritty realism.
“You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what,” Ryan Gosling’s mysteriously named ‘Driver’ utters in the film’s opening sequence. Staring out at the twilight world of Los Angeles from a high-rise building, he sports a silvery-white jacket embroidered with a bright yellow scorpion. He then proceeds to meticulously oversee a simple bank heist as the getaway driver, collecting a car from Bryan Cranston’s Shannon before carrying out the job itself in an understated, tense chase sequence.
It’s one of the greatest character introductions of contemporary cinema, presenting an individual shrouded in so much suffocating mystery, slick yet sophisticated, meticulous yet relaxed, he lands like intoxicating perfume. This is then punctuated by the introduction of the film’s iconic score, as ‘Nightcall’ by Kavinsky plays whilst the camera absorbs the neon-tinged spirit of the LA skyline. Produced by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, ‘Nightcall’ would become the exemplary piece of an influential soundtrack that would help to usher in a new appreciation for the synth-wave genre, a style of music with origins in the style and spirit of ’80s culture.
In itself inspired by 1980s cinema, with a recurring candy-pink font stripped from Paul Brickman’s Risky Business, Nicolas Winding Refn’s film became a slick, stylish cult classic made for a relative shoestring budget of $15 million. Eliciting the subtleties of an electric nostalgia for the 1980s became Drive’s most marketable asset, harking back to the narrative simplicities of old Hollywood whilst suffusing the film with its own unmistakable punk modernity.
With the hardy Pusher trilogy already under the director’s belt alongside the tough, expressive prison drama Bronson, starring Tom Hardy, Nicolas Winding Refn was well-prepared to imbue Drive with the same sense of frenzy and gritty steel. As if born from the same notebook as George Miller’s titular Mad Max, Refn’s lead character embodies this stylish energy of an enigmatic wanderer with a resilient sense of justice.
Just like Miller’s character, we are drawn to the Driver because of his mystery and the spontaneity of his devotion to newfound love Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young child. Suddenly challenged with protecting their lives, Ryan Gosling’s character embodies the scorpion emblazoned on his jacket, stinging any predator who threatens their existence.
As it happens, Drive’s LA is infested with predators, incessant individuals thirsty for financial gain, attacking with carnal ferocity yet an oddly humanistic flair. The LA we see is neither fantasy nor reality; it is flitting between the two, reflecting a land so influenced by the glitz of Hollywood that it has convinced itself of its own daydream. The driver is not a superstar. The gangsters are not maniacal villains. Just like the ethereal nature of 1980s synth-wave, Drive exists on its own dreamlike plain where gritty reality and dreamlike spectacle coexist. Nicolas Winding Refn’s film succeeds so well by selling this nostalgic reverie to its audience.