Not many films can be claimed to be ‘game changers’. You’re lucky if there’s one a decade, maybe two. Although the phrase itself is vague and broad, its meaning here is that the film has left such an influence that it isn’t really compared to anything, but many things, in its wake, have been compared to it.
When Drive was released back in 2011 by Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, it felt revelatory. Ryan Gosling, coming off of the back of romcom roles like Crazy, Stupid, Love or the offbeat Lars and the Real Girl, felt oddly cast, at least initially. Despite his heart wrenching portrayal of a man going through a painful break-up process in the previous year’s Blue Valentine, there wasn't much else to back him from.
Refn’s oeuvre strayed further from the mainstream leading up to this film than Gosling's. Particularly revered were his Pusher trilogy and the Tom Hardy cult classic Bronson. Cult is what Refn does best, his understanding of film so entrenched in cinema’s classics that he has the knack to produce them himself, always with an entirely original vision and execution.
Although his understanding of film is nuanced, Refn’s films are bold. None more so than Drive up until that point. The story is fairly simple. A movie stunt driver doubles as a getaway driver for bank robberies. His life, cool, calm, calculated, with his associates all kept at a distance, is turned upside down when he meets a girl and her child. It’s not quite romance, nor a crime thriller, yet contains strong inflections of each.
Stylistically - where Refn’s films shine - we have the protagonist, a kind of cowboy figure who wanders alone to the beat of his own drum. Like Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Man With No Name’ character, Gosling is known only as ‘Driver’. So he has a name and, as an identifier, he also has one of cinema’s most iconic items of clothing - the scorpion jacket.
A pearl harrington style piece, emblazoned with a gold scorpion on the back, is a mixture between two of cinema's most stylish films of the past, The Warriors and Akira - an item so recognisable that, paired with Gosling’s stripped back portrayal of the precise, brutal and charismatic lead, contributed to one of cinema’s most recognisable characters, a lonesome outlaw archetype inhabited by the likes of Travis Bickle and Tyler Durden.
Neon-soaked aesthetics, highlighting Los Angeles’ ugly glamour, make the film dazzling. You could pause it at any scene and you’d have a photograph to mount on your wall. Compositionally it’s near perfect, perhaps only topped by his follow up collaboration with Gosling in Only God Forgives.
It would be a shame to pause it, though. Because, if you did, you’d be missing out on the score helmed by former Red Hot Chili Pepper’s drummer - now film scoring extraordinaire - Cliff Martinez. Combining a synthy pop soundtrack, built for exuberant driving experiences, Martinez pulls together some originals and some contemporary (thanks to Drive) classics.
Whilst each element excels on its own, as a package, there’s little competition for Drive as one of cinema’s greatest ever films. It has no peers. It bucked all trends at the time and still, over a decade on, looks as timeless as it did upon release. It is, therefore, nothing less than one of cinema's post-Millenium gamechangers.
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