DirectorNicolas Winding Refn
Release Date(s)2011 (June 6, 2022)
Studio(s)FilmDistrict (Second Sight)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A-
[Editor's Note: This is an import release from the UK.]
Drive landed at a potential crossroads in Nicholas Winding Refn’s career as a director, with its success at the box office offering a possible pathway for him into the American mainstream. Refn being Refn, he didn’t take that road, and instead followed his own muse with his follow-up vehicle Only God Forgives, a film that’s deliberately designed to frustrate viewer expectations. Of course, Drive had done something similar, albeit to a lesser extent, but still enough so that one person actually filed a lawsuit against distributor FilmDistrict for false advertising. She claimed that the marketing made it look like a Fast and Furious style action movie, when needless to say, it’s nothing of the sort. (She also accused it of being anti-Semitic, and even if that had been true, it’s not clear why she expected to be legally compensated for that fact.) The unexpected commercial success of Drive notwithstanding, Refn’s sensibilities were never meant for the mainstream.
Like many other filmmakers of his generation, Nicholas Winding Refn wears his influences on his sleeve. Unlike fellow syncretist Quentin Tarantino, he’s subsumed those influences under his own particular authorial stamp to such an extent that they’re often barely recognizable. Drive is ostensibly based on the 2005 novel of the same name by James Sallis, but the script by Hossein Amini follows it so loosely that it would be more accurate to say that the film is inspired by the book, rather than being an adaptation. Yet Refn’s real inspirations for Drive came from the filmmakers who preceded him, especially Walter Hill with The Driver, but also Michael Mann with his debut feature Thief. Drive borrows its subject matter and main character from The Driver, blended with some of the narrative ideas from Thief, but shaken and stirred in such a way that it wouldn’t be recognizable to either Hill or Mann. The basic story follows Driver (Ryan Gosling) while he works as a Hollywood stunt driver by day, but a professional getaway driver at night. When his employer Shannon (Bryan Cranston) comes up with a scheme to build and race a stock car, they end up turning to mobster Bernie (Albert Brooks) for a loan. Meanwhile, Driver has become friends with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) while her husband (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. He dreams of a better life, but getting in bed with the mob will end up putting everyone on a collision course that will put all of their lives at risk.
While the basic narrative of Drive does have some obvious points of comparison with both The Driver and Thief, Refn’s wasn’t really interested in Hill or Mann’s thematic concerns. Mann has focused on the Hawksian conception of professionalism throughout his entire career, and while Hill has dallied with other themes, The Driver is his most purely Hawksian story. Gosling’s Driver is clearly inspired by Ryan O’Neal’s The Driver in that film, especially in terms of his taciturn nature—Driver was much more garrulous in the novel by Sallis, so that key change proves that Refn was following Hill in that regard. Yet Refn is far more fascinated by the concept of transformation than he is by any notions of professionalism. To borrow a term from Thomas Harris, most of Refn’s films have been about Becoming, as his characters usually undergo a metamorphosis of some kind throughout their stories. In the case of Drive, the fact that Driver is good at what he does isn’t really important to Refn; what matters is that this getaway driver ends up using his criminal skillset to become a Hero. (As if that point wasn’t already clear enough, the lyrics to the song A Real Hero in the film’s soundtrack spells it out quite explicitly.)
While professionalism itself may not have been Refn’s primary interest in telling this story, he still seems to have absorbed some lessons from Mann in that regard. While there is indeed a full-throttle car chase in the middle of Drive, the chase that opens the film is an entirely different matter, demonstrating that Driver’s skills are as much mental as they are physical. He remains cool and level-headed at all times, never panicking or running when it isn’t necessary. That’s contrary to Hollywood norms, where car chases are supposed to have maximum energy at all times. Yet the whole point of being a getaway driver isn’t necessarily to escape the police; instead, it’s not to draw their attention in the first place. There’s no need to run if you aren’t being chased. So, Driver handles the car normally as much as possible, only taking off when he’s been spotted. Once he shakes the pursuit, he slows down and drives normally again. That gives the whole chase a fascinating pattern of start/stop rhythms, but the entire sequence maintains a high level of tension even when things have slowed down—arguably more so than when the action kicks in. It’s a lesson to other filmmakers that good pacing doesn’t necessarily require keeping things moving at all times.
The kind of professionalism that Driver exhibits while behind the wheel also extends to his other actions in the film. While his character remains largely enigmatic throughout, it’s clear that he’s had hands-on experience with many other tools of the trade. While Driver’s mantra is that he doesn’t carry a gun, just drives, by the end of the film, it’s obvious that he meant that the same way that Quigley did in Quigley Down Under—he may have said he never had much use for one, but he never said that he didn’t know how to use it. The ease with which he handles violence shows that he’s had plenty of experience with it in his past. Shannon’s mistake in Drive is that he underestimates the mobster Bernie, but Bernie’s mistake is that he underestimates Shannon’s Driver. When push comes to shove, Driver is more than capable of pushing back, with deadly consequences. He was always a professional, so his transformation involves using his existing skills for a different cause: protecting the innocent. In the process, he becomes a real human being, and a Real Hero.
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel captured Drive digitally at 1080p resolution, primarily using ARRI ALEXA cameras with Angénieux Optimo zoom lenses, though he switched to Cooke S4 and Zeiss Master Prime lenses for the car interiors. A handful of shots were also captured on an Iconix HD-RH1 camera and Sigel’s Canon EOS 5D Mark II, while high-speed photography used a Weisscam HS-2 MK2. The footage was recorded to HDCam-SR tape in ProRes 4:4:4 format, with real-time color correction performed via a FilmLight Trulight On-Set system. Post-production work and final grading was done at Company 3 in New York, finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate, framed at 2.39:1 for its theatrical release. This new 4K version with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 grading was also produced at Company 3, and it was approved by Refn.
Needless to say, considering the 1080p origination, there aren’t any real improvements in fine detail to be had here, and yet this upscale is in a whole different league compared to other 1080p upscales like Cloverfield, Collateral, or the final two Star Wars prequels. No, there isn’t any new detail that wasn’t there before, but the textures do look significantly crisper and better defined than they did on 1080p Blu-ray. The improvements are most apparent with details like the costuming, such as the weave on the ski masks worn by the robbers during the opening chase scene. Any textures like those look surprisingly good, as long as they were relatively close to the camera. It’s only the background details that sometimes show the limitations of the 1080p capture, with grass and other vegetation looking softer and less defined. The benefits here from upscaling at the uncompressed source are incremental, not revelatory, but it’s still a good reminder not to be so quick in dismissing anything that wasn’t captured natively at 4K.
While opinions may still vary on that score, the improvements in new HDR grade should be far less open to debate. With the original source using 10-bit color depth at 4:4:4, and the 10-bit capability of the UHD format, there’s more opportunity to distinguish the grade from the Blu-ray’s limited 8-bit depth. And this grade does indeed sing, with stronger contrast, deeper blacks, and brighter glows from the ubiquitous neons and street lights in the night scenes. The overall color balance hasn’t changed, but there’s more depth to the warm, golden hues that suffuse Drive. There’s little in the way of noise or other artifacts, either. Sigel rated the cameras at 800 ASA, and even pushed them to 1600 ASA at times, so he was able to get decent dynamic range without introducing too much noise to the image. While the overall bit rate on the disc does run a little low on average, it’s still a good encoding, so that didn’t add any artifacts, either. This may well be the best upgrade from a 1080p source to 4K HDR that’s been done to date. It’s that good.
Audio is offered in English Dolby Atmos and English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. Drive missed the introduction of Atmos by a year, so it’s not clear when this alternate mix was created. (It may or may not be significant that Second Sight doesn’t describe it as being a new mix on their website, while they do refer to the 4K master as being a new one.) The sense of immersion has been expanded gently from 5.1, without revising things too much. There are occasional isolated overhead effects like helicopters flying above the viewer, and the interiors of the cars sound more spacious, with a clearer sense of three-dimensionality. Of course, Drive is really driven (pun intended) by its fantastic soundtrack, featuring a propulsive score by Cliff Martinez, as well as an eclectic collection of songs that will be instantly recognizable to fans of the film. The music has a slightly greater sense of presence here. This Atmos mix has a definite edge over the 5.1, but if you’re not convinced, the good news is that the latter is still an option on the disc.
Second Sight’s standard 4K Ultra HD release of Drive is UHD only, with a Region B Blu-ray version released separately. The disc-based content is identical to their gorgeous Limited Edition set that’s long out-of-print (more on that later). The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Nicholas Winding Refn and Peter Bradshaw
- Drive: A Conversation with Nicholas Winding Refn, Editor Mat Newman and Cliff Martinez (Upscaled Zoom – 75:09)
- Cutting a Getaway: An Interview with Mat Newman (Upscaled Zoom – 19:28)
- 3 Point Turns: a Video Essay by Leigh Singer (HD – 12:46)
The commentary features Refn along with Peter Bradshaw, who’s the movie critic for The Guardian. It’s not so much of a scene-specific commentary as it is a loose conversation between the two of them, sharing much more generalized thoughts about the film. They discuss the challenges that Refn faced in making a car look interesting on screen when he doesn’t even drive, and the even greater challenges of planning such a distinctive color palette despite the fact that he’s color blind as well. They do cover his relationships with the actors, shooting in sequence, and some other production information like that, but they’re far more interested in assessing how Drive works for them on a personal level. Refn admits that everything that he does is about transformation, and for him, this film does represent the transformation of a loner into a hero. He also describes himself as someone who has both the attitude and the megalomania to create, but not necessarily the technical skills, so he’s reliant on others to bring his visions to life. (Anyone who has watched his infamous dialogue with William Friedkin will attest to the first part of that statement.) It’s an unusually introspective commentary, so it’s well worth a listen.
Drive: A Conversation is a three-way Zoom conversation between Refn, editor Matt Newman, and Martinez. Refn sets the tone by thanking Charles Bronson, waiting for a reaction, and then explaining what he means. (Refn devotees will immediately understand that he’s not talking about the actor.) Like the commentary, it’s filled with plenty of personal details, as well as memories of working together. Refn and Newman have worked together since Bronson in 2008, while Martinez joined the team with Drive three years later, but they clearly have good chemistry together. They do spend plenty of time discussing Drive, which Refn refers to as having the immersion of Valhalla Rising with the aesthetics of Bronson. It’s a long, leisurely discussion, but it’s both informative and revealing. Newman goes solo for Cutting a Getaway, which is a more focused look at his own work with Refn. He gives a brief recap of how he became Refn’s English-language editor, before focusing on what was involved in cutting Drive. Finally, 3 Point Turn is a video essay by writer and filmmaker Leigh Singer, which examines the three major driving sequences in Drive. He explores both the similarities and differences in the camerawork for each of these scenes, and the ways in which they help to establish Driver’s character.
That’s a nice collection of disc-based extras, but it’s a shame that the Limited Edition sold out so quickly, which would have warranted an overall rating of A+. That was a stunning box that included a paperback copy of the novel by James Sallis, as well as a set of seven art cards. It also included a 240-page(!) hardbound book featuring essays by Alison Taylor, Emma Westwood, Matthew Thrift, Hannah Strong, Simon Ward, Thomas Joseph Watson, and Travis Crawford; an interview with Sallis; plus storyboards and production photographs. Everything was housed in a sturdy hardbound case with artwork designed by AllCity, and it’s flat-out gorgeous. At least their artwork is still featured on the insert for the standard edition, and I can’t imagine even the loudest of packaging critics finding any reasons to complain about it. (Full disclosure: I do own the Limited Edition, but we’re reviewing the standard version since it’s the only one that’s still available.)
In any event, it’s what’s on the discs that really counts, and Second Sight continues to knock it out of the park with all aspects of their releases, both inside and out. While their separate Blu-ray version may be Region B locked, this UHD is Region Free, and it has all of the same extras. So, there’s no good reason for fans of Drive not to add this very worthy disc to their collections.
- Stephen Bjork