The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Martin Zeller-Jacques.

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While many critics have focused on Drive’s tense action sequences and visceral violence, or else its surprisingly tender, emotive moments, few have discussed the element which allows the film to function across such different registers: the soundtrack. Eschewing both the classy, orchestral soundtracks typical of contemporary Hollywood blockbusters and the pointedly meaningful guitar noodling and plaintive voices which characterise so much recent American indie cinema, Drive looks backward for its inspiration. In the 80s-esque sound of Cliff Martinez’s electronic score, along with the retro synths of Desire and Electric Youth, Drive finds a sonic register every bit as earnest and unsettling as the onscreen action.

In the short review I noted the insistent, powerful effect of the electronic score in the opening chase scene (watch a portion of it here). Here a shortened version of The Chromatics’ magnum opus, 'Tick of the Clock’, from the appropriately-titled 2007 album Night Drive (2007), is expertly interwoven with the sounds of engine revving, clocks ticking, police scanners and radios to create a virtuosic action sequence. As admirable an achievement as this is, however, the music which will likely stay with the audience after they have left the cinema is not the spine-tingling instrumentals, but the unexpectedly sugary pop-ballads.

The most affecting of these, ‘A Real Hero’, remixed by College from an original track by Electric Youth, is something like a theme-song for the film. Its first appearance comes in a crucial scene which establishes the whole emotional underpinning for the driver’s (Ryan Gosling) later fight to protect Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Benicio. This kind of pared down revenge drama always dances close to the ridiculous, requiring us to see the protagonist’s violent actions as inevitable if he is to maintain our sympathy. In the classic revenge drama (The Outlaw Josey Wales [1976], for example), the hero’s own family is slaughtered and his violent reaction is understandable, even natural. For Drive to work similarly, however, we have to accept that the driver, whom the opening scene has established as extremely competent but wholly emotionless, will go to Herculean lengths to protect Irene and her son.

Rather than laying the groundwork for the driver’s vengeance with the b-movie staple of an early sex-scene followed by a kidnapping/murder, Drive opts for a sweeter, more old-fashioned approach: a music montage. When Irene and Benicio bring their car to the garage where he works, the driver gives them a lift home (watch the scene here). A rare smile creeps over his face and he asks if they’d like to see something. A slow, insistent bass synth begins in the background as the driver steers his Mustang into the familiar concrete trough of the LA River. Instead of the kind of violent set-pieces usually set in this location (see Terminator 2’s [1991] truck chase for the most famous example), we are treated to a gentle, floating drive. Benicio is all excitement, staring fixedly at the magically empty landscape around him, while Irene and the driver tentatively catch one another’s glances across the car.

However, the real magic of the scene comes when they reach the end of the LA River - a concrete abutment grown over with weeds and bushes, and concealing a misty, natural swampland which seems a million miles from the bleak urban LA in which the rest of the film is set. As we realise that, far from showing off his Hollywood stunt-driver credentials by showing his ersatz family a famous movie-location, the driver is in fact showing them the beating, natural heart of the city, and of himself, the soundtrack builds to an insistent, syrupy chorus of ‘A real human being’. This scene provides a thematic inversion of the ‘shooting lesson’ common to this type of film. In Shane (1953), for example, the enigmatic gunman shows himself capable of gentle living, but still inducts little Joey Starrett into the deadly art of firearms before the boy’s mother puts a stop to their gunplay. Here, however, the driver strives to keep his capacity for violence beneath the surface, instead introducing Benicio and his mother to the hidden beauties of Los Angeles. This moment, along with its accompanying song cue, provides the film with its moral underpinning in a way which pays off beautifully in the final scene.

Here the driver confronts Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), the smiling villain behind the murder of Irene’s husband and his own friend and partner, Shannon (Brian Cranston). Despite the blood already on his hands, the driver still tries to get away clean, negotiating Irene’s safety in return for a million in stolen mob cash. Rose calmly informs him that, while Irene will be safe, the driver will have to keep looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life. We have already seen Rose’s vicious nature in action, and know what to expect when he accompanies the driver to his car to pick up the money. The knife slips in quickly and deeply, causing the driver to drop the duffel-bag of cash. Yet another knife appears in the driver’s hand and after a brief scuffle played out by the two men’s shadows on the ground, both drop to the ground.

This suitably grim denouement might well have been enough, but again the slow bass rhythm of ‘A Real Hero’ begins again in the background. The driver rises from the ground, wounded in the gut and covered in the blood of a half-dozen thugs and gangsters, but lifted by the memory of that formative moment with Irene and Benicio. With one hand held to his bleeding side, he climbs into his car and speeds away. Again the chorus repeats ‘A real human being’, and the camera pans down to reveal the duffel bag of money left to soak in the blood leaking from Rose’s body.

Like so much else in Drive, this kind of ostentatious foregrounding of a song seems to belong to another era. Yet the music in general, and ‘A Real Hero’ in particular, is crucial to the way this film works. In the same interview I mentioned in the short review, Refn appropriates the song’s dichotomy (A Real Hero/A Real Human Being) to describe the changing way Irene sees the driver throughout the film. More than that, however, this deceptively innocent-sounding bit of synth-pop tells us something of the very heart of the film. Like Drive itself, ‘A Real Hero’ at first seems familiar, even trite, in the way it recycles shop-worn tropes. Yet both film and song reveal their simple, honest intent: to provide, in the midst of something tired and exploitative, a touch of something genuinely sweet and honest.

This Alternate Take was published on October 27, 2011.