2017 Film Essays

There’s Something Inside You: Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’

“There’s something inside you, it’s hard to explain.”

This line from Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” introduces the central theme of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Though a thirst for action may lead some to the film, it ultimately delivers so much more. Refn creates profound curiosity about his likable, nameless character, (aka “the kid”), who is a multi-faceted, complex individual. He is a stunt car driver, auto mechanic, get-away driver, prospective race car driver, vigilante killer, handsome companion and father figure. While possessing extraordinary driving skill, focus, courage, compassion and strength, he is bereft of the normal range of emotion, leaving one to question his humanity. His capacity for gruesome killing is startlingly savage. Yet, by the end of the film, one could be convinced that he’s not only human, but a hero. It’s the subliminal drive toward the realization of his ideal self that evokes his potential.

Early in the film, the kid’s capacity to be a hero is foreshadowed by his depiction as a police officer during a stunt driving assignment. The police uniform is associated with conformity; protecting and serving others. During a kitchen conversation with Irene (the kid’s lovely, befriended neighbor), Refn suggestively frames the shot, so that the kid’s reflection slightly looms within a mirror above a picture of Irene’s son, Benicio, and his father. This visually suggests that the kid is superior to Irene’s husband. He represents the “deluxe” man that Irene sought when she met her husband, Standard.

Refn employs cinematographic precision when Irene reveals that Standard will be released from prison. At a red light, the kid’s drive toward self-realization comes to a halt, and he reverts to his lonely, isolated existence. His drive is later reactivated when he attempts to free Standard of his prison debt and the associated danger to his family. However, the kid flirts too much with danger, as he becomes too entangled with criminals, and cascades into a frightening spree of vigilante killing, albeit in a heroic quest to safeguard Irene and Benicio. When Standard is killed, the kid blames others, and tries to comfort Irene with the promise of money and a better life with him. Irene rejects this overture, wanting no part of criminal gain and frightened upon witnessing the demon erupt from her knight in shining armor.

The kid’s darker side is first introduced early on when his shadow is clearly visible against a wall. The lyric “there’s something inside you, it’s hard to explain” suggests not only the possibility of an inner hero, but inner demons as well. The next hint of his killer traits come in the form of Bernie Rose, the partner of the kid’s boss, Shannon. Bernie is revealed to be the kid’s doppelganger. When the two first meet, the kid is reluctant about shaking hands. His excuse is “my hands are a little dirty.” Bernie replies, “So are mine.” This immediate reluctance shows that the kid recognizes a similarity and anticipates dire consequences. Later, Bernie informs the kid that, like him, he views the racing partnership as a means of going legit. Unfortunately, both men have lesser partners, whose inadequacies they must compensate for. This leads to more killing, and both realize they may never escape their criminal pasts.

As tools to accentuate the evolution of heroism, criminality and inner demons, Refn references and pays homage to past genres. The film’s plot is structurally similar to that of Walter Hill’s classic The Driver (1978). Both films incorporate genre tropes that are typically found in westerns.  However, while The Driver plays it straight, Drive subverts expectations. At first, the kid seems like the perfect Clint Eastwood, a “Man with No Name” stand in. Like Eastwood’s character, the kid’s name is not revealed and no back story is provided. He maintains a calm demeanor. Even if there is trouble or misfortune, he keeps his cool. Similarly to an Eastwood western, the majority of the kid’s communications are done via facial expressions, rarely with words or emotion. The only time that the kid breaks this vibe is when he talks tenderly with Benicio, and when he savagely erupts to protect Irene in the elevator.

It is common practice for westerns to occasionally incorporate some gothic elements into their repertoire, but the climax of Drive feels more like a slasher film. Even the rubber stunt double mask worn by the kid is reminiscent of the classic Michael Myers’ Halloween mask. With soulless black eyes and pale skin, the kid wears this mask when staking out Nino’s joint, and when he drowns Nino in the ocean. The kid’s catatonic demeanor, when he is not engaged with Irene and her family, is similar to Myers. Benicio’s wearing of a jack-o’-lantern mask can viewed as a foreshadowing of the film’s finale. Yet, perhaps the most powerful comparison to Halloween is that after being fatally wounded by Bernie, the kid just walks it off. In this way, he may be viewed not only as human and a hero, but a mythological force that can never die, like Myers. The kid becomes a force of eternal justice that must right wrongs, no matter the cost.

At the end of Drive, Refn leaves the viewer to wonder about the kid’s future. Uncertain endings are characteristic of Refn. I find it interesting that Los Angeles is the setting for both Drive and his 2016 film, The Neon Demon. Refn is drawn to this bad land where he finds there is more to people than meets the eye, where the capacity for violence is volcanic. In Drive, the kid’s will to become a good friend, father figure and hero is surpassed in intensity by the inner drive of the young females in The Neon Demon to become glamorous and successful models. I predict yet another Refn L.A.-based film in the future, one that ejects audiences from their seats with unprecedented violence and character desperation. Refn is clearly captivated by exploring what passions and vulnerabilities lie within people and what boundaries man’s inner drive can break.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.