Noir in name only: The horsepower behind Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive

Drive 5

While much of the attention for the Scandinavian Noir movement is likely to focus on suspenseful dramas permeating the small screen, the big screen has also seen its share of Nordic gloom, with Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series in particular proving popular in countries around the world. Yet perhaps the highest acclaim for the cinematic export of Scandinavian Noir has come for a film which was never incidentally branded as such; Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film, Drive, was not only hailed at Cannes, where it won Winding Refn a best director prize, but it also captured the attention of mainstream film-goers as well, helping solidify the star-power of its Canadian-cum-American lead, Ryan Gosling. And while its American setting and production funding may have precluded its branding as a ‘Scandinavian Noir,’ Winding Refn (a Dane) had already been making a name for himself in the regional sub-genre with films such as the Pusher series, and the film’s stylistic overtones were enough to ensure that it was still (unwittingly) categorized as ‘neo-noir.’ Indeed, it seemed that Scandinavian or not, everyone could agree there was no mistaking Drive as an exemplary piece of noir.

On the surface, this made sense. The film reveled in the shadows; setting many of its scenes at night, and keeping most of its daytime scenes indoors, using light sources that never quite managed to fill the corners of a room. And it coupled its shadowy scenes with just-as-shadowy characters. The film dealt with the criminal underbelly in LA, complete with mobsters and goons. Then there was its requisite 21st Century ‘grit;’ fight scenes bordering on the gratuitous, with Winding Refn allowing his own school-boy zeal for violence to bubble over into barbarous territory (a microcosm of this being the elevator scene where Gosling’s character too, allows his murderous impulses to overtake him). It put high-brow art critics in the awkward position normally reserved for their reviews of Tarantino films- desperately needing to intellectualize their own base enjoyment of the unabashed blood-lust on-screen. Thankfully there were enough retro synthesizers, throwback fonts, and long takes with sparse dialogue to legitimize its art-house cool, and both critics and mainstream audiences alike felt rest assured in their universal acclaim of this neo/Scanadinavian/noir. Yet, the same could not be said for Winding Refn’s next picture, Only God Forgives. The film wasn’t nearly as well received, despite much of the same noir-ish veneer, leaving film-goers to naturally compare the two golden Goosling vehicles and postulate where Winding Refn had gone wrong. Or put another way, to question what made Drive work so well (as a piece of noir). Well, like a souped-up Chevrolet Impala, the secret to Drive lay under its hood all along: in actual fact, it wasn’t a noir at all. Instead, it was a very formulaic, paint-by-numbers… Western.

What makes a noir a ‘noir’ (let alone a Scandinavian Noir) can be difficult to put one’s finger on. A noir’s binding elements are largely superficial and subjective; a darkened look, a suspenseful feeling, and elements of law and order. And yet, suspense and criminality are alive and well in many genres of film. Hence, noir’s have always been intrinsically tied to their lighting, first and foremost. And in this sense it’s almost excusable that film-goers mistook Drive as such. Indeed, it certainly looks like a noir. Yet, on the other hand, Westerns are relatively easy to plot, formally speaking. There are certain narrative elements which act as the structural core of any good Western, and considering these hallmarks, Drive is most certainly a textbook Western in (Sam) spades, relying on successful tropes and plot devices going back all the way to such canonical classics as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, My Darling Clementine, and perhaps most overtly, Shane. And although Winding Refn has only spoken (on the record) of the film working as a modern-day ‘fable’ or ‘fairytale,’ even from the film’s opening he seems all too happy to hint at the film’s Western underpinnings.

The very first thing ever seen or heard in Drive is the breezy sound of an open dusty road; a sound which almost begs the visuals of a tumbleweed rolling along. And yet, when the visuals do appear, we’re inside a dark hotel room with the windows shut; the previous sound being a diegetic impossibility. We then hear a man cooly offer a personal code of conduct, his face turned away from us. Only a fleeting reflection in the window offers a glimpse of who he is while he overlooks the city he will shortly be riding- er, ‘driving’ into. The only identification, besides the steely voice, is that of the large embroidered scorpion on his jacket; a classic symbol of the desert.

Aside from these meager clues, Winding Refn keeps his cards close to his chest when it comes to his protagonist, much in keeping with Western hero archetypes. We know little about him- neither where he comes from, nor where he’s going, nor what his goals are. In may ways he seems to be a direct update of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ character in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy; instead of a horse, he drives cars. Instead of the iconic Western cigarillo, he chews on toothpicks. Instead of a cowboy hat, he throws on a ball cap by the end of the intro. He is a nameless drifter of few words who does most of the talking with his fists. We’re also introduced to him at a time when he’s aiding and abetting criminals. This too is a trope of the Westerns protagonist conventions; we’re not sure what side of the law he’s on (laws being seen as disconnected or ineffectual in the wake of everyday frontier circumstances) we only know he has his own moral code, and thus, some sort of sense of justice, be it legal or not. This is made clear from that seminal phone call, wherein The Driver mumbles some of his only words, outlining his personal rules for the ensuing (lawless) situation. Winding Refn later even plays a quick sheriff joke by showing The Driver in a cop uniform -momentarily misleading the audience- only to reveal he’s actually a part time stunt driver. As Bordwell and Thompson point out in their breakdown of the Western genre:

“The in-between position of the hero affects common Western plots. He may start out on the side of lawlessness, or he may simply stand apart from the conflict.”1

Of course, there are some modern transpositions afforded in keeping with the contemporary neo-noir veneer. For instance, instead of a dusty one-horse town, The Driver overlooks the gleaming, glassy metropolis of Los Angeles. But of course, it’s likely no coincidence that Los Angeles itself is historically a wild-western city that was once at the edge of American frontier colonial expansion, and which was previously occupied by staple groups of Western-genre ‘otherness’: namely, Mexicans and First Nations. Furthermore, in keeping with those motifs of setting, a classic trope for opening a Western might be for the drifting protagonist to see a town from afar, ride his way into it on horseback, and then start to integrate with the locals (such as in Shane). And in Drive, although it’s later implied that The Driver has been in town ‘for a while,’ the opening scene echoes this Western structure, starting with The Driver overlooking Los Angeles, then continuing through his drive into the heart of the city, and ending up with his integration into the local crowd via the parkade.

Once we’re past this Western-esque introduction and The Driver is installed into a day-to-day life, the next narrative step is to introduce him to characters he’ll begin to affiliate with and care for. In short, the Western hero needs to become “uneasily attracted to the life offered by the newcomers on the frontier.”2  The newcomers on the frontier in Drive are represented by his neighbour Irene and her son, Benicio. While until now, the protagonist was kept cloaked in moral ambiguity, it’s through the plight of these ‘civilized’ law-abiding townsfolk that the protagonist fully ingratiates himself with the audience. His moral, chivalrous compass ultimately appealing to his sense of justice and compelling him to pick up the gauntlet of peace and order in fighting those who are bent on attacking the defenseless, including damsels in distress, which Mulligan here essentially plays. This too puts him in league with classic Western heroes like Shane, Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp, John Wayne in Stagecoach, etc.

Winding Refn does little to establish the attraction between the neighbours verbally, adhering instead to the Western conventions of the “shy courting of a woman by the rough hewn-hero.”3  Primarily, he does this by offering nothing more than several doe-eyed looks and lingering smiles in awkward silences. And the two characters never consummate their budding attraction either, which works to The Driver’s chivalrous credit, as Irene is still married to Benicio’s father, Standard. This too echoes Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in respectfully keeping his romantic feelings in check for Cathy Down’s character in the canonical Western, My Darling Clementine. But perhaps even more closely, the dynamic appears as an almost verbatim extrapolation from Shane, wherein the eponymous hero is smitten by the wife of a settler and her young son. The boys in both films are around the same age, and it’s partially through the protagonists benevolent/fatherly interactions with them that the audience rests assured of the hero’s good intentions. They even share similar discussions- in Shane, about guns, in Drive, about sharks.

While benevolence towards the son helps ingratiate The Driver further to the audience, the fact Winding Refn has to do so little to establish the romance partially speaks to the director’s use of semiotics and the audience’s presumptive conditioning. The selective edits of the two leads smiling at each other -often against leading pop tunes whose lyrics speak directly about the characters- tells the audience most of what it needs to know. Then the fact they are also the most youthful and arguably attractive actors (or at least, framed/lit that way) doesn’t hurt either. And yet, there is also something potentially more troublesome at play with the way they look that may be swaying the audience’s (subconscious) expectations of character: that of their ethnicities. It seems worth noting that Gosling, blue-eyed, clean shaven, and looking positively Scandinavian in the role, gets to be the knight in shining armer amongst seedy characters who are alternately singled out as Jewish, Eastern European, or in the case of Standard: Latino. The only other ‘good guy’ is his bumbling-but-loveable WASP father-figure, played by Bryan Cranston. Mulligan too, blonde haired and pale, seems ready to be whisked away from her ethnically-mixed marriage (and the trouble its tacitly seen as bringing to her door) by the first guy who carries her groceries home, smiles a bit at her son, and looks more like her. It’s almost as if there was some unspoken ethnic empathy at play.

While this may seem like a stretch at first, in the DVD extras of Drive, Winding Refn even notes how he tried many talented Latino actresses for the role of Irene (as the character was written as such in the novella), but ‘nothing was working in his head’ because despite their beauty, he couldn’t “fall in love with any of them.” Then he met Mulligan, whom he immediately felt like he wanted to ‘protect,’ and thus rewrote the part for “a white American woman.”4  Whether or not this was all subconscious or coincidental remains to be seen, but it could be argued (with much chagrin) that these representations do nothing to harm the audience’s comprehension of the narrative itself, but instead reinforce who’s with who, considering how sparse the film is on dialogue and exposition. In other words, since we really don’t know much about who these people are (esp. The Driver), Winding Refn may be using the visual similarities (and differences) of characters as secondary supporting cues.

As cringe-worthy as that seems, it wouldn’t be out of step with Western conventions either, as the clean-cut hero is often pitted visually against the boorish and unkempt cattle rustlers, Mexicans, or ‘savage’ Native Americans while he defends the white settlers in ‘hostile’ territory. A direct correlation in Drive would be the Eastern European henchman who could easily been seen as boorish or uncultivated; his frequenting of strip clubs also making an easy parallel with the cattle rustlers who frequent the brothels in Westerns.

But insofar as the Western hero is “naturally inclined toward justice and kindness, the cowboy is often poised between savagery and civilization.”5  And just as we are getting comfortable with the idea that The Driver is a softy, Winding Refn reminds us that he was initially an outlaw capable of his own brand of Wild West justice. In a diner scene, The Driver verbally threatens an unnamed man who reminds him of a job he performed the year prior. It foreshadows the violent lengths to which The Driver will go to protect Irene and Benicio once Standard explains the potential danger they could be in. Compelled by that threat, “the hero decides to join the forces of order, helping them fight hired gunmen, bandits, or whatever the film presents as a threat to stability and progress.”6  And indeed, The Driver sets about trying to help Standard in an attempt to shield Irene and Benicio from harm. However, things go awry, leading to a compromising climax where The Driver is forced to brutally dispose of a hired gun in front of Irene. It’s a pivotal scene for characterization, as The Driver is coerced into showing his uncivilized side in front of the woman who represents the side of peace and order. Thus, before he annihilates the threat, he kisses Irene for the first time, knowing it might well be his last. And once the henchman has been gruesomely disposed of, Winding Refn again lets silence do the talking, as the elevator doors which stand between Irene and The Driver seem to close both literally and figuratively on their potential romance.

Regardless, the dutiful hero finishes what he started, valiantly moving towards a final showdown with the bad guys for the sake of his unrequited love, ensuring peace and order are left in his wake. For, “the drifting cowboy is condemned to live outside civilization because he cannot tame his grief and hatred. More savage than citizen, he becomes condemned.”  And as Winding Refn has his cowboy literally ride out into the sunset, we again hear the pulsating confirmation from the soundtrack that he is in fact a real human being, and a real hero.

While this open-endedness in Drive confirmed for many the art-house credentials of a modern noir classic, it was in reality another stylishly executed trope from the blueprints of Westerns of yore, most closely mirroring Shane, where the still-bleeding cowboy rides off after the battle despite being welcome to stay with those he just helped protect. It’s one of a number of plot points shared with that film, amongst many other Westerns like it. Regardless, this Western wolf in noir’s clothing certainly worked its impressionistic magic on unsuspecting audiences; the aesthetic facade of the film cementing its branding as neo-noir, while upholding its director as being one of the finest purveyors of the Scandinavian Noir sensibility. Yet the truth of the matter illuminates one of the enduring issues for the noir moniker (both Scandinavian or other): that the classification may only go skin deep. Indeed, it may not really mean anything more tangible than a few elusive shadows. And so, if you want to write a great neo-noir, you might want to rent a few oaters first…

(1) David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 9th Edition, (New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2010) 338

(2) Bordwell and Thompson, 338.

(3) Bordwell and Thompson, 338.

(4) Drive without a Driver: An interview with Nicolas Winding Refn. Drive DVD. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. 2012

(5) Bordwell and Thompson, 338.

(6) Bordwell and Thompson, 338.

Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson is a full time thinker and part time filmmaker from the Canadian West Coast. He holds an honours degree in Political Science from Concordia University, and is an MFA candidate in Film Production at York University in Toronto. His mother is originally from Norway and likes to remind him of this constantly...