Monday, October 17, 2011

Extended Thoughts on "Drive" - Part Two - The Sound of "Drive"

One month to the day after publishing my original review, I’ve written an in-depth, three-part analysis of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.”  The post for Part One explains the details, but in brief, here’s how it breaks down: in Part One, I explored how “Drive” compares to the James Sallis novel on which it is based; in Part Two, which you are now reading, I examine the many ways in which the film uses sound to create atmosphere and meaning; and finally, in Part Three, I dive into the film’s thematic content and what deeper meaning I perceived.

Read Part Two of my analysis after the jump….

Part Two: The Sound of “Drive”

The film begins.  A voice is heard: “If I drive for you, you get your money. That's a guarantee. Tell me where we start, where we're going and where we're going afterwards, I give you five minutes when you get there. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours, no matter what. Anything a minute either side of that and you're on your own. I don't sit in while you're running it down. I don't carry a gun. I drive.”  Over the course of this dialogue, the camera pans up to introduce the speaker, a mysterious man with a scorpion on his jacket, talking on a cell phone as he looks out the window of hotel room at the city below.  For a character that will be largely defined by visuals, he is introduced through sound in a monologue that tells us much of what we need to know.  The rest of this sequence will tell us the rest. 

Driver discards the phone, grabs his bag, and leaves the room.  In his car, there is silence.  Only ambient noise and the first bits of Cliff Martinez’s synth-based score, repeating a simple, staccato chord progression with increasing force.  It is somewhat reminiscent of a heartbeat, and as it grows in volume, it speeds up.  Driver’s clients climb into his car, and we hear the first sounds of an engine as Driver pulls away.  Once they arrive at their destination, the robbers climb out to get to work, while Driver places a watch on his steering wheel.  It begins ticking, akin to the beating score.  Driver places a radio on the dashboard tuned to police frequencies, and as voices start coming through, he tunes the car radio to the local basketball game.  The major sonic motifs have all been put in place.  The beating score, a car engine, a ticking clock, and two radios. 

The robbers come out.  Driver hears the police are aware of the robbery on his radio.  He begins to drive as soft engine sounds swell; a police car is coming down the street, so he pulls behind a truck.  Click.  Lights off.  Engine off.  The score becomes very quiet in accordance, and all the focus is on the police radio as the black-and-white passes by.  They’re in the clear.  Driver pulls out again, engine sound swells softly, music returns to its former volume.  On the highway, Driver listens intently to the police radio (while the basketball radio continues in the background), and hears they are spotted.  The police give chase.  The engine roars loudly, and the score follows suit in the first moment of total sonic intensity.  As Driver shakes the tail, the sound blares, and when he has escaped, it returns to a familiar softness. 

The cycle repeats at a stoplight.  As Driver stares at the police car across the intersection, he hears the man inside transmitting on the radio; the score becomes soft, providing only rhythm: the focus is on the radio.  Once again, he’s been discovered.  Driver guns it, all the sounds return in full, but as for the radios, the basketball game has been brought to the front.  The game is winding to a close; the commentators are counting down the final seconds…3…2….1…just as Driver pulls into the Staples Center, dons a Clippers cap, and exits the car into the boisterous noise of the crowd, signifying the end of the sequence by instituting a new sonic status quo. 

I love all of “Drive,” but this opening sequence is my favorite part of the movie.  It is a flawlessly constructed bit of filmmaking, primarily driven by the sounds I highlighted above.  From a functional standpoint, the sound does all the heavy lifting in the scene.  Ambient noise and the beating score creates atmosphere, while the car noises create a strong sense of setting – the nighttime streets of LA, to be precise.  The volume of the sound, which rises and falls in accordance with the action, defines the emotional mood of the scene; a spike in volume (most notably in the car’s engine) makes our heart beat faster as we worry for the characters (something Martinez simulates in his score), and when it quiets down, the sound creates an anticipatory mood. 

The opening is the best concentrated example of the film’s sonic mastery, but the rest of the movie is just as strong.  Consider, for example, the choice of non-score songs.  “A Real Hero” by College is played twice in the movie and operates on multiple levels.  Most immediately, its bass-fueled synth-beat is a stylistic match with Martinez’s score, providing a similar sort of energy.  On another level, we can compare the two scenes in which the song is used: in the first, Driver takes Irene and her son on a drive through one of LA’s dry canals; the happy trio then travel to a riverbank to skip rocks.  It is probably the happiest, most content moment of the movie.  The next time the song is used is the final sequence: Driver, having just been stabbed by Burnie, clutches his bleeding wound as he drives through the streets of LA, intercut with shots of a teary-eyed Irene realizing that Driver is gone and he isn’t coming back. 

By using the same song in both sequences, the film draws a connection: Driver is content in both instances, first because he is around two people he loves, and later because his sacrifice will make it possible for Irene and her child to have more happy moments in the future.  Next, we may consider the lyrics of the song, which chant “real hero/real human being” over and over.  Has the Driver attained humanity in both sequences?  Are his actions heroic in either case?  Since the song heavily showcases these words, the film forces us to ponder such questions. 

In similar fashion, the aria “Oh My Love” clues us into Driver’s psyche as he moves in to kill Nino after finding Shannon murdered in the garage.  Driver is visibly shaken by Shannon’s death, but since the rest of the scene is wordless, there’s no verbal or visual indication that he chooses to go after Nino out of revenge; using “Oh My Love,” however, implies an emotional motivation that the visuals cannot conjure alone.

“Drive” is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, and after two viewings, I am still most strongly struck by the precision of the sound, which does everything a good soundtrack should do: it illustrates environment, strengthens atmosphere, creates emotions and mood, always plays well off the imagery, etc.  I sincerely hope film scholars discover “Drive” when it arrives on home video, because this is a film that deserves to become part of the academic conversation, and not just on the technical side.  We will tackle the thematic side in the final portion of this analysis.

Continue to Part Three to read about the thematic content of “Drive”
Or return to Part One to read about the adaptation of “Drive”


  1. I really enjoyed your interpretation of this phenomenal cinematic masterpiece which also happens to be my favourite. If you do not mind, I will be putting links to and acknowledging your 3 part article on my own blog as I speak about why Drive meant so much to me.

  2. I really enjoyed your interpretation of this phenomenal cinematic masterpiece which also happens to be my favourite. If you do not mind, I will be putting links to and acknowledging your 3 part article on my own blog as I speak about why Drive meant so much to me.