Has a cooler American movie been made since Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive? Every frame of the movie oozes style, every note of sound is polished, everything about the movie is just… cool. By pure coincidence, I’m posting this list on the exact same day as the film’s American release four years ago. That’s four years of watching Ryan Gosling’s The Driver cruise around L.A., getting a feel for the streets, kicking ass and taking names and falling in love. Here are some things I love about one of America’s coolest films, that rarely get discussed.
The faint sound design in this shot. Whenever The Driver (Ryan Gosling) cruises by a street light, we hear a slight “swoosh” noise.
The slight push-in on The Driver’s face as he waits for the second robber. Great, subtle way to capture tension.
How he’s only using one hand to drive here.
The look the robbers share as The Driver tails a cop. Fucking priceless.
The fact that the opening scene takes a lot of geographic liberties with the streets of Los Angeles, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest. You’re locked into the tension.
The way the music and the police scanner cut out as the helicopter passes overhead, trying to find the hiding car.
The music swelling up as the Staples Center comes into view.
This background player (in the red and white shirt) crashing the camera as The Driver takes his jacket off.
The juke-step The Driver has with the cop.
Irene (Carey Mulligan) passing by in the parking garage. I missed that the first time.
The movie constantly defies expectations. The first time I saw this film, the theater let out an audible gasp at this shot.
“I got ya 500 more, huh. Course we split that.” And the finger point.
I love watching characters react to something off camera before we see it. You know he’s looking at Irene and her kid, you just don’t know why yet.
The little eyebrow raise The Driver gives Benicio as The Driver leaves the apartment.
Based on this shot, The Driver lives close to downtown, in MacArthur Park. But he says he works at a garage on Reseda Blvd., which is deep in the Valley. Like 22 miles from where he lives. For L.A., that’d be a brutal commute.
This villain shot.
The sun just barely peeking through center frame.
As grim and violent as Drive gets, this scene is one of the most angelic representations of Los Angeles I’ve ever seen in a movie. The sun, the smiles. And that music.
Irene encapsulating the day with, “That was good.”
I’m obsessed with background dialogue. That is, an exchange that happens off screen. When Shannon (Bryan Cranston) walks away from Bernie (Albert Brooks), to sell Nino (Ron Perlman) a car, you can barely hear Shannon say to Nino, “You know what, this car will even make you good lookin’.” To which Nino replies: “Oh, I’m already good lookin’, pal.”
The way the music doesn’t decrease in volume as Standard (Oscar Isaac) gives his speech. Usually a song will magically lower its level when a character is talking. Not here.
The despondency on Irene’s face at the party. Mulligan has such command over her emotional expression.
Again, defying expectations. The first time I saw this movie, I expected Standard to step to The Driver. But no, he thanks him for helping out, and walks away. Says everything about Standard that we need to know.
The cut-to-push-in shot of The Driver’s “How ‘bout this,” line delivery.
The Driver making sure Benicio is safe first.
The deep musical cord that strikes when Benicio hands The Driver the bullet.
I can’t recall seeing James Biberi in a movie before, but man, whatta face this guy has.
Standard’s confident strut into the pawn shop.
And the way he flips the OPEN/CLOSED sign.
The heightened sound design of the gun blast. They amped the shit out of that thing.
This expression of “Okay, relax, think, gain control.”
This slight smile is everything.
The insane rumbling sound design of the car engine after the elevator attack.
The look on Nino’s face as Bernie kills Cook. He has the same look of displeasure as if a dog just shit on a rug.
Oh, you know, just walking around a film set, clothes covered in blood, no big deal.
I love this shot. Nino is laughing his ass off, and the gal couldn’t give a possible shit.
“For the rest of your life, you’re going to be looking over your shoulder. I’m just telling you this because… I want you to know the truth.”
Death in shadow. What a ballsy photographical choice.
A final thought: since my first viewing of the film, I’ve always wondered why The Driver was often shot in the left side of the frame. Examples:
No, really, he’s almost always in the left:
And then, in the final few scenes of the film, that switches inexplicably. Very interesting.
UPDATE: Every Frame a Painting has a great video that partly explains the framing of Drive. Watch it here.
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