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A great opening scene grabs the audience’s attention while establishing setting, tone, and key characters in the story. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive does all of this while memorably defying our expectations of the action genre. When I reflect on my favorite films from the 2010s, Drive ranks high, and its opener is a significant reason why.
However, eight years removed from Drive’s debut, subverting action conventions isn’t the film’s legacy. What lingers for many is Cliff Martinez’s electronic score and Refn’s 80s visual pastiche punctuated by bursts of graphic violence. So while the general critical consensus on Drive is positive, many critics write the film off (if not Refn’s whole filmography) as self-suffocating style over substance. It’s an unfair rap because beyond the synth-heavy music and neon-drenched L.A. setting, Drive has superb craftsmanship that makes it unique and compelling today.
Drive’s opening car chase scene is a perfect case in point. Ryan Gosling’s unnamed Driver carries two thieves from the streets of downtown L.A. to the Staples Center, evading cops along the way. Most traditional action films focus on exterior forces, on the thrill of the action itself and the hero’s outcome. Drive is instead all about the interior, about the thought process and characterization of the Driver himself. All technical elements in the opener contribute to an offbeat tone and show how the Driver handles himself in the field.
If you’d like to follow along with the analysis below, Drive is widely available on Blu-ray and streaming services to rent or buy. At the time of this writing, it’s also on Netflix. The scene we’re focusing on starts three minutes from the film’s beginning.
Refn’s and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s biggest departure from convention is in the scene’s shot selection. Most filmmakers use crane and gimbal shots outside the cars, often at wide, high angles with a large depth of field. The camera is usually fluid, rapidly panning to capture movement, and rarely resting in one place. The variety of angles and perspectives can shuffle dramatically in service of the action. The net result helps orient the audience and highlights high speed stunt work.
In sharp contrast, Drive almost exclusively shoots from within or very close to the Driver’s car. Instead of focusing on the vehicles or the road, the camera defaults to the Driver’s face, often in closeup or extreme closeup. Wide lenses predominate, but given the closeness of the camera to the subject matter, many shots have a narrow depth of field. Except for a handful of quick pans left or right and a single push in, the camera stays completely static.
Camera coverage is minimal across the scene. Refn and Sigel favor a passenger side closeup of the Driver in profile (either at head level or from an extreme low angle) a hood-mounted shot of the Driver (either medium or closeup), and a shot from the back seat forward out through the front of the car. The scene returns to these angles repeatedly.
The many closeups of the Driver’s face and shots from his perspective make it easy to empathize with the Driver as a meticulous professional at work. The lack of coverage from beyond his view contributes to a claustrophobic, boxed-in tone that helps build tension.
Traditional action films capture car chase scenes during the day or otherwise lean on intense artificial lighting to reinforce the action. Once again, Drive deviates from the norm by shooting at night and deploying minimal external lighting. The filmmakers use a roof-mounted speed-rail rig to add some subtle lighting that feels unobtrusive compared to most Hollywood films.
Sigel and Refn also aren’t afraid to kill artificial lighting entirely to set the mood. Midway through the chase after the Driver maneuvers the car to avoid a police helicopter spotlight, the entire scene is so low lit it appears almost pitch black on screen.
The tradeoff behind this more realistic visual palette comes at the cost of visibility. The audience can’t see every action beat onscreen. However, it’s a good decision on Refn’s part. He highlights major elements (cop cars, helicopter, radio) and trusts the audience to connect them together to keep the scene digestible. The low key, realistic look also helps make more garish, stylized scenes of violence later in the film all the more impactful.
Hollywood car chases prefer audio in a maximalist form: a booming, percussive score mixed with tire squeals, loud engines, and hurried dialogue to keep the action revved up. In sharp contrast, Drive sets a slower tempo with a comparatively sparse soundscape of four primary sources: a single electronic song, voices on a police scanner, sports radio, and the occasional roar of the car’s engine. For the exception of a few comments from the thieves early in the scene, there’s no dialogue from the getaway car passengers.
The Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock” — a synth-heavy electronic track — is the most notable, unorthodox audio contribution. For the beginning of the sequence, the song has a pulsing beat that stays at low volume in the audio mix as the Driver pulls away from the robbery and starts evading cops. At the midpoint, as the action intensifies, instead of pumping up the score like many other films, “Tick of the Clock” drops the beat entirely and transitions into a single sustained synth note. The effect is an oddly reflective, almost meditative addition to the scene. A moment that would drive other characters into extreme stress paradoxically pushes the Driver into a Zen-like sense of control.
Sound, shot selection, and lighting are probably the opener’s most striking elements, but other aspects, from Gosling’s subtle acting to the editing that pushes some of the cops versus robbers action offscreen, work in conjunction to set Drive off on a wholly unique, offbeat path. For such a simple scene, it telegraphs a lot about the Driver: ruthlessly efficient at his work, gliding above the surface, with nary an outburst of emotion. But with the sequence originating from such a solitary perspective, it also hints at the Driver’s loneliness, which makes the romance he has with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) later in the film an especially gratifying presence.
Apart from building character, the minimalist audio and visual tech underpinnings of the chase embody the low key, offbeat vibe of the rest of the film. Overall, it’s an incredibly well-crafted scene, one that still lingers with me almost a decade later.