Patrick Jensen’s review published on Letterboxd:
When I first saw Drive, I have to admit that I thought it was good, although not the mindblowing stylistic masterpiece that everyone apparently saw in it. But the more I thought about it, it began to feel deeper to me, and I slowly saw what other seemed to see in it. After a rewatch, I can definitely appreciate it for what it is, but I'm still not sure on whether or not I should call it a masterpiece, even if I think it is the best film among Nicolas Winding Refn's filmography.
The main reason I love this film is the direction. Maybe it's because Drive is the rare oddity in Winding Refn's filmography that is not written by him, but by Hossein Amini, and also the only adapted work (of James Sallis' novel of the same name) he has made, but his style is unusually understated, in contrast to his somewhat self-indulgent films like Only God Forgives and Valhalla Rising. An example of this is the use of color symbolism. With Only God Forgives, I felt that the red neon lights were constantly smacked in my face, but here, the use of color symbolism is underplayed to the extent where it stands out rather than drowns out the screen. Irene's red shirt becomes a symbol of passion, but also of foreshadowing of Standard's fate and the eventual revelation of the Driver's dark side, and the presence of the blue clothes worn by Standard, Irene and Benicio when they are all gathered in their home further emphasizes their unity and the notion of sanctuary that Irene and Benicio seems to represent for the Driver. The visual subtlety at play here shows Refn's moody visuals at their best and, to me, their most beautiful. The best example of the balance found in this film is probably Ryan Gosling's performance as Driver. He manages to shift between the young with a good heart and ambitions of becoming a real racecar driver and family man to the psychotic thug willing to "protect" innocence by all means necessary with this mild-mannered, yet very cold performance. He's one of the many outstanding factors here.
Speaking of moody visuals, the cinematography is excellent. From the various shots of the cityscape of Los Angeles, the great nighttime scenes and the tranquility of the scenes with Driver and Irene are all a marvel to behold. They are not just beautiful to look at, but they also manage to represent the various dichotomies found within the city. Sure, this is a place where one can find peace and start a family, but it is also a place that is very upfront about its shady nature, best represented through Bernie and Nino, the two main gangsters played respectively by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. I still find it hard to believe that it is Nemo's father who's the terrifying Bernie. Talk about a surprisingly out of character performance from Albert Brooks.
But the atmosphere is not just conveyed brilliantly by the performances and the visual aspects. Cliff Martinez' score and the great soundtrack consisting of newer bands performing 80's style songs complements the film excellently. The score got me in the mood and enhanced the immersion I had in the car chases and violent scenes we see throughout, while the soundtrack showed the self-awareness of this film. Yes, the songs might be cheesy if taken by face value, but a song like College's "A Real Hero" showed that the film could take an ironic distance to its story. It emphasized the desires of the Driver, but it also made the ending feel that more tragic, as I realized that the driver only saved Irene's life by giving completely in to his dark side, thus destroying any possibility he had of a future with her, as he ultimately was not that different from Standard.
With so much praise, why am I not giving this a higher rating? Well, despite the narrative function of Irene, Benicio and Standard, I found their characters rather bland, and in the case of Irene, I never truly saw what it was, outside of Carey Mulligan's natural beauty, that the Driver found special in her. I feel that if the character had more of a personality, we could have gotten a more interesting performance out of Mulligan, and some edgy aspects to her character such as emotional instability would have made her feel like more than just a blank slate. The same can be said for Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks, who feel completely wasted as well, as they too are not given enough to work with, and they are capable of being fun and dramatically competent, so why not let them be that, when Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman are allowed to add depth to their archetypal characters?
In conclusion, Drive is still an excellent film to me, and one I can always rewatch and still feel entertained about, while being able to enjoy its technical brilliance. I might not see it as a masterpiece, but it's very close to being one.