Thomas’s review published on Letterboxd:
Nicolas Winding Refn´s hyper-stylish and brilliantly crafted masterpiece “Drive” is a unique and highly artistic mix of crime thriller, romance, and character study and an entrancing cinematic experience.
As a prime example of the “show, don´t tell” approach, the film has not much dialogue. Instead, it uses excellent visual storytelling, fascinating symbolism, fitting music, and nuanced performances to tell a moving, captivating, and profound story about loneliness, love, crime, guilt, violence, responsibility, change, redemption, duality, identity, and human nature. If you expect a fast-paced mindless action spectacle that clearly explains everything, you will be disappointed. You are required to pay attention and make your own interpretations, but if you´re willing to do that, there is so much to discover in this movie.
“Drive” has a slow and patient pacing, but that doesn´t make it boring. The film has a fantastic rhythm, a hypnotic melancholic atmosphere, a mesmerizing neo noir vibe, and an engaging plot with surprising and well-executed tonal shifts. There are also two exciting car chases as well as several thrilling moments of suspense and shocking outbursts of explicit violence. And even though there is only minimal dialogue, the movie features several memorable quotes.
The most impressive aspect of “Drive” is probably the breathtaking aesthetic. The film is full of beautifully composed shots, fascinating camera perspectives, stunning cinematography, striking colors (and interesting color symbolism), and fantastic lighting. The atmospheric Los Angeles setting is definitely a character on its own. And then there is the divine synth score/soundtrack, which elevates every scene and tells so much with both sound and lyrics. The standout tracks are “Nightcall”, “Under Your Spell”, and the unofficial main theme “A Real Hero”.
Apart from the audiovisual style, the film´s biggest strength are the characters, most of all the iconic protagonist. The Driver is mysterious as hell and we know neither his name nor anything about his past. He is perfectly introduced as a quiet, cool, introverted, and intelligent loner, who has everything under control. He is the ultimate badass and over the course of the movie, we discover the true depths of his dark and violent side, but he also shows more and more of his softer, vulnerable, and emotional side. He clearly wants to be a good person and lead a better life (with Irene) but struggles to escape his nature and the world he lives in. Ryan Gosling is perfectly casted in this role, not only because of his natural charisma and magnetic screen presence, but also because he can convey so many emotions without words, just with subtle gestures and especially his eyes. You can truly feel the Driver´s loneliness, hope, longing, and sadness and because of that, you root for him despite his flaws. Personally, I find his character arc moving and satisfying. I also like how he turns into a kind of dark superhero during the last act (he even wears a mask).
Carey Mulligan is also outstanding as Irene, a young mother and the Driver´s love interest. You just want to hug and protect her. Mulligan and Gosling have intoxicating chemistry and those looks they give each other make me melt. They are two lonely souls that found each other but can´t stay together. The definition of a bittersweet love story. The legendary and perfectly crafted elevator scene, which is the Driver´s goodbye to Irene, is the emotional climax of the film (apart from maybe the ending).
Oscar Isaac and Bryan Cranston also leave their marks, but the standouts among the supporting cast are Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, who play the two charismatic, authentic, and very human villains of the movie.
Like I said, the film is full of symbolism, but I want to focus on the probably most obvious and most talked about one: The fable of the scorpion and the frog.
The short synopsis of the fable (Wikipedia): “A scorpion, which cannot swim, asks a frog to carry it across a river on the frog's back. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung by the scorpion, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: "I couldn't help it. It's in my nature."”
The meaning is clear: (Some) people can´t stop acting on their instincts, even when it goes against their own interest. So, what animal represents the driver?
You could argue that he is the frog. I mean, he wears the scorpion jacket (I haven´t even talked about the awesome jacket) on his back and he literally acts as a transport for criminals, who continue to “sting” him, even though he is helping them. The more common interpretation is that he is the scorpion (and the scorpion on his jacket represents himself). He wants to change, be a good guy, and have a normal life, but his nature and lifestyle make him “sting” Irene and himself, even though he doesn´t want it.
I would say, he represents both animals at once. He is a frog and a scorpion. Well, and a shark (“Are there no good sharks?”). The driver is a complex, flawed, and contradicting person, like we all are. What truly matters in the end are his decisions. He kills the bad guys, leaves the money, and lets go of his love (so he can´t “sting” her), because those are the right things to do. His decisions make him rise above his instincts and environment and therefore, he proves to be a “real human being” and a “real hero”.
“Drive” has style and substance in abundance and from the perfect opening to the perfect ending, it´s a poetic, aesthetically pleasing, and emotionally captivating experience. With every rewatch, I discover something new. Cinema at its finest and a true modern classic.
This could definitely become a 5 stars film for me someday.