An Interpretive Evaluation on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) is a difficult work to provide an analysis for seeing as how it not only blends within several genres, but also in how its overall framework lends itself to miniscule details which may shift interpretation and evaluation from person to person depending on the perspective of the audience member. Some may see this film as overly violent and exaggeratedly obtuse in its interpretation of crime. However, others might find Refn’s film to be artistically thriving with a soothing pace lending itself to an atmospheric work filled with oneiric undertones. An argument should be made for the latter interpretation in demonstrating how the use of lighting and color along with characterization and sound are supplemented in achieving a similar affect. Implementing strategies of interpretation, description and evaluation, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive shall be proven in being a work of artistic merit with overlying qualities in surrealism.


Drive undeniably features qualities which might categorize the work within oneiric cinema most likely because of its attention to both the lighting and the color Refn has given to each scene. The film introduces its audience to an almost dream-like reality in where stylization dominates over content. Whole scenes are given meaning merely through aesthetics as an emphasis is put within this type of symbol usage. For example, a scene which should be more closely investigated is the one in which the Driver kisses Irene as he is within seconds of impending doom from the hired hitman inside of the elevator. Starting the scene with normal settings, both the pacing and the lighting shift gears as Ryan Gosling’s character realizes the danger they are both in. The tone switches from average elevator lighting to a dark-lit environment which spotlights the lovers specifically, isolating them almost completely from the rest of the reality. This is stressed to an even higher degree with the slow-motion in affect as the two lovers’ kiss is played out as romantically and heavenly as possible. However, as the kiss ends slowly but surely, the dream-like settings end as well. The lighting returns back to reality and the action of the Driver killing the hitman actually speeds up, providing almost the same effect with an opposite technique. Both of these parts from the same scene achieve an oneiric quality through two different techniques. Interestingly enough, this is one of the few scenes in which Gosling’s character breaks out of his emotionless and expressionless persona in showing his true passion through protecting Irene. This protagonist does not merely help in serve the story’s motives, but also helps in aiding the oneiric eminence of the work.


The Driver is as mysterious a character as any in cinema. The audience knows absolutely nothing about his life, his motives nor who he is as a person apart from his job and crime-driven life. Though this may be viewed as a flaw in achieving emotional connection to the audience, this may also be viewed in arousing intrigue into this character’s life. The fact that he restraints himself from showing absolutely no emotion or expression within his facial reactions is testament to his segregation from society. He is an outsider, an alien. Most of the characters within the film take notice of this alienation as they try to puzzle together his motives and his history, not knowing that maybe the Driver, himself, is unaware of it as well. For example, all the scenes in which the Driver introduces himself to people such as Bernie, Standard or even Irene, he never utters more than a word or two at a time as the blank and empty quality of his face should not be mistaken for shyness. He is not a shy man. Rather, his love for Irene proves the fact that the care he gives for others will only blind his rationale and create an utter monster willing to kill at any turn if it means protecting his loved ones. He shuts the rest of society out from knowing his true intentions or who he really is because letting people in means more danger he has to put himself through for that specific person. An important quality to the protagonist is the fact that he parallels the stylization of the films. Just as the film plays out in having a slow-tempo, the calmness it exemplifies juxtaposes these techniques with violently blunt scenes filled with action and gory content proving in demonstrating how the Driver also constitutes this basic structure. Though for the most part, his character is composed of quiet mannerisms with subtle smiles and glances, he is inherently a killer at heart ready to destroy for the sake of love. Both the protagonist and the film’s style complement each other in a way which achieves oneiric qualities in a cohesive system. With that being said, it is equally important to note how sound plays into realizing this dream-like effect within the context of the story and of the character.


Though diegetic sound does play a role in Drive, a larger case must be made for the dominance non-diegetic sound carries throughout the film in furthering the plausibility of such a dream-like reality. Because music interacts enormously with the arc of certain scenes, it is almost impossible to describe that element without correlating it directly with other elements simultaneously. Thus, both color and sound make their most vital contributions within the last few scenes of the film. Though color associates directly with lighting, its essence is undoubtedly made present in the killing scene between Bernie and the Driver as the only evidence of the final few blows lies within the shadow’s portrayal of the action. The overexposed nature of the scene’s lighting makes the harsh shadows even more highlighted as it shows the gentle killer settling down his prey ever so softly on the cement ground. This leads the remainder of the scene into a question of whether or not the Driver’s motionless corpse is a result of death or a product of his meditative persona. Witnessing the Driver’s static face in a tight close-up, the Sun’s rays come in heavily over-exposed as it gives the sense of an almost heaven-like atmosphere. Slowly, music begins to creep in. As it begins to escalate ever so loudly, the Driver’s eyes suddenly blink just as the beat reaches its climactic point. These two elements of sound and color worked coherently with each other in exhibiting a scene which imitates a heaven-like landscape in how it approaches not only the lighting, but also the spatial distance between non-diegetic sound and diegetic sound as the latter starts to take prominence after his liveliness is proven. Other scenes factor in quite prominently as well when considering the concepts of sound and color. For instance, when the Driver takes Irene and Benicio home from visiting the pond behind the highway, an example can be made of the link between the color and the sound. As the lighting and the color lend themselves directly to realism, both the slow motion and dominant non-diegetic music contrasts with the natural setting to give the sense of a surrealistic experience as the Driver, an inherently violent creature, caresses the innocent young child upon his back. With all these contrasts between styles and content there has to be a definitive list of genres in which this film falls subject to categorization. This must be done in means of justifying the criteria discussed above in amply proving whether or not the oneiric qualities displayed by the work justifiably qualify it as a good film.


In Noel Carroll’s article ‘Introducing Film Evaluation’, he primarily makes reference to the fact that a film should be categorized based on if it falls subject to a genre which has a substantial amount of films with similar style/qualities such as comedies, horror, westerns, suspense or even dramas (Noel Carroll, ‘Introducing Film Evaluation’, 159). His other significant point in evaluation is whether or not the film in question is a result of a “historical and/or cultural context from which the film emerged… [supplying] rational grounds for film categorization” ( Carroll, 160). Drive’s categorization may be deduced by a combination of both methods, while also diverging from both techniques.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s film is clearly an homage to Hollywood cinema in how it portrays Los Angeles as the perfect crime city filled with both make-believe enchantments of the entertainment industry and the violent warfare made known to audiences in so many Hollywood classics of the noir genre. Thus, a case may be made for Drive as influenced by and subsequently categorized as a noir, romance, drama and action film. Yet, falling within these genres does not make it an undeniable result of these categories, but also a result of the history and context of modern day Hollywood. With the amount of pop-culture music implemented into this film, it is no doubt that Refn was trying to reach out to today’s youth as a target audience through more ways than one. By casting Ryan Gosling, arguably one of the most popular young actors of today’s generation, it is clear who the film was aimed in appealing to. However, these facts do not weaken the film. They merely help in evaluating the work.


In conclusion, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive ends up exploring a variety of different genres, making it exceedingly difficult to label this as a product of one specific section. However, when speaking in terms of contextual history it is much simpler to understand why it was such a commercial success within pop-culture. Drive leaves absolutely no audience type unsatisfied as it uses its surrealistic element to travel through each genre as swiftly as the story allows it to be done. The Driver’s romantic love affair with Irene and his care for her young child sets the film as a romance and a drama as the love he experiences for the two, both Platonic and Eros, allows him to unleash his true beast though he attempts so hard to hide it in everyday life. On the other hand, the lifestyle he has chosen for himself prior to Irene inevitably falls under influences of noir and actions films as the mafia he crosses paths with leads to violence of the most cinematic type while invoking elements of suspense within each beat. Since Refn’s film falls almost seamlessly within each one of these categories, evaluation of the work would have it be a good film due to the level of similarity Drive achieves in being compared to each genre’s standards. Be that as it may, one must also evaluate this film within the context of its conception, understanding that its commercial appeal does not hinder its artistic merit, but rather adds to the oneiric cinema of which the film originates from. Nicolas Winding Refn achieves this level of production by creating a work which diversifies its uniqueness by isolating itself from purely artistic works and purely commercial works, becoming a hybrid of both superpowers.

Works Cited
Carroll, Noel. “Introducing Film Evaluation.” Engaging the Moving Image. 2003: New Haven: Yale University Press, n.d. 147-164.
Drive. By Hossein Amini. Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn. Perf. Ryan Gosling. Prod. Marc Platt. FilmDistrict, 2011.

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