‘Drive’: The Unexpected Urban Western

quickly established itself as a critical success, with the film’s director, Nicolas Winding Refn, receiving the Best Director award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and Roger Ebert heralding the film upon its September release last year as having “respect for knowledgeable moviegoers.”1 Drive’s critical acclaim could be attributed to a number of factors, but I feel that its status as a future “It” film is due to a combination of the mythology explored in the narrative, the inclusion of compelling and unexpected casting choices, and Refn’s reinforcement of the film’s central themes through the skillful manipulation of formal style elements (including the cinematography, score, production design, and costume design).

Drive centers on a stunt/getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) who wrestles with his own loneliness and isolation in the middle of his quest to protect his neighbor and budding love interest, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son from sadistic crime boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) after a heist gone wrong. Drive can be thought of as an urban Western set in a fictionalized dangerous wasteland of contemporary East Los Angeles. Just like the classic Western, Drive’s narrative attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, namely the conflict between the desire for individualism and the need for a sense of community.2 Gosling’s unnamed character is the perfect embodiment of the Western Outlaw Hero: a strong, solitary figure who lives outside of normal society and follows his own moral code in order to protect the “weak” in the community from those who would harm them. Refn beautifully depicts the Driver’s isolation in a quiet scene in which the character sits alone in his room putting together a carburetor while the ambient sounds of a nearby party echo through his dark and empty apartment.

Gosling’s character literally has no other identity than a “driver.” As the Driver begins to pursue a relationship with Irene, he finds himself yearning for her companionship but unable to escape the individualistic mentality that he has lived with for so long. The internal conflict this character experiences throughout the course of the narrative is representative of the universal struggle between maintaining a personal identity and the constant need for a sense of belonging. What makes Drive a brilliant film is that it depicts a resolution of this timeless conflict by having the Driver save Irene and her son (representative of the “community” of the film) while remaining separate from their family at the end of the narrative (i.e., maintaining his own individuality).

In addition to the successful incorporation and resolution of this basic Western trope, Drive also features a number of astounding and unexpected performances. Besides Gosling—layered, intense, yet somehow subtle—as the Driver, Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose is one of the biggest surprises of the film. Brooks, perhaps best known as the “Woody Allen of Los Angeles,” is a witty and sarcastic actor and comedian who normally plays neurotic but lovable characters (such as Tom in Taxi Driver and Aaron in Broadcast News). In the role of Rose, Brooks plays completely against type. Refn’s decision to cast Brooks in the role was a huge risk that, luckily, adds to the film’s threatening atmosphere instead of diminishing it. The baggage of Brook’s off-screen persona makes his more sinister moments completely shocking and unforgettable. The viewer is completely unprepared for Rose to act in such a ruthless and violent manner, which adds an extra layer of suspense and intrigue to an already tense story. The complex and at times incongruous nature of both Brooks and Gosling’s characters stands in stark contrast to the one-dimensional characters usually seen in contemporary films with this subject matter (such as The Fast and the Furious). Drive is a combination of contemplative character study and extreme violence that is more in keeping with New Hollywood cinema of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It is the incorporation of this narrative tradition that will help Drive remain relevant for years to come.

Interwoven with the film’s mythological narrative and astonishing performances are stylistic embellishments that strengthen the content of the film. For example, the Driver’s costume reinforces his identity as an Outlaw Hero, with the traditional Western iconography (such as a cowboy hat, gun, and holster) replaced by a white scorpion jacket and burgundy driving gloves. Bernie Rose’s sleek gray suit, which he wears during his final confrontation with the Driver, as well as the intimidating, imposing structure of his business surroundings, strengthen his position as a powerful and wealthy mobster. Additionally, the dangerous atmosphere of the whole film is expressed in Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography. The film takes place mainly at night, but even the daytime scenes are filmed with a low-key light that causes dark shadows to fall on all the characters’ faces. The darkness of the film’s scenes is contrasted with a jaundiced yellow that portends danger and menace.

Lastly, the film’s music and scenery choices pay homage to the filmmakers and genres of previous decades. For example, the Driver’s car of choice, a 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle, references classic film chase scenes such as The French Connection‘s infamous Gene Hackman car chase and Bullitt‘s Steve McQueen chase. The film’s musical composition is a striking combination of techno beats by composer Cliff Martinez and ’80s-inspired pop songs. This music seems to place the film out of time in a fantastical location—removed from contemporary Los Angeles—where the film’s strange “fairy tale” can unfold.

Drive displays an ingenious combination of old mythology, intertextual film references, and cutting-edge visuals. Nicolas Winding Refn has crafted a film that will remain intriguing and relevant to audiences for years to come.


1. ^ Ebert, Roger. “Drive.” Chicago Sun-Times. John Barron, 14 Sept. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2011.
2. ^ Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930–1980. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985. Print. Ray discusses the importance of this type of conflict to the narrative composition of classic Hollywood Westerns, most notably Shane, in his chapter “Real and Disguised Westerns.”

Author bio:

Jessica Fowler is a recent graduate of UCLA’s Master of Arts program in Cinema and Media Studies and will be pursuing her Ph.D. in the Fall. She received a B.A. in Film Studies and a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Georgia. Her research interests include Hollywood films produced for the international market during the early sound era and the impact of Top 40 radio on television productions of the late 1960s.

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