‘Drive’ Set The Tone For A Decade of ’80s Nostalgia

In 2011, music culture went back to the future. The sounds of the 1980s were everywhere, whether it was the sultry sax licks that adorned critically acclaimed hits by M83 and Destroyer, the soft-focus synth-pop of chillwave acts like Toro Y Moi and Washed Out, or the fractured AOR heartland rock of Bon Iver, The War On Drugs, and Kurt Vile. Nostalgia for the Reagan era also seeped into cinema, with movies such as Super 8 and Cabin In The Woods self-consciously recalling bygone blockbusters by Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter.

And then there was Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a crime drama starring Ryan Gosling set to a wall-to-wall soundtrack of ’80s Europop homages by hip contemporary indie musicians like Johnny Jewel and Kavinsky. Made on a modest budget of $15 million and released 10 years ago this fall, Drive was a hit, grossing $81 million worldwide. But it was also polarizing, confounding as many people with its deliberate pacing and mix of dewy romanticism and extreme violence as it thrilled those who loved the soundtrack and Refn’s command of cinematic cool. The film’s dire Cinemascore rating — a lowly C-minus — was blamed on an ad campaign that promoted Drive as a standard-issue action film featuring the sexy leading man from The Notebook; one disgruntled viewer even filed a lawsuit against the distributors on the grounds that she was “misled” into buying a ticket for an arty meditation on action films.

In retrospect, Drive‘s reputation has suffered even among those who initially liked the movie. It’s become one of those pictures associated with so-called “film bro” culture, just below the tier of the usual favorites from Tarantino, Fincher, and Nolan. But whether you like the movie or not, it’s undeniable that Drive is among the most influential films of the early 2010s. Not just in cinema, but in culture overall. In Drive, you can see the roots of films like Baby Driver and Wonder Woman 1984 as well as the smash-hit TV series Stranger Things, and even Taylor Swift’s pop breakthrough 1989. Three years after Drive, the BBC did a “rescore” of the film featuring many of the acts who have (deliberately or not) emulated the film’s vibe of retro melancholy, including key 2010s indie bands such as The 1975 and Chvrches. Drive might have looked back, but it also helped to define its decade.

Watching Drive again this week for the first time in years was an unusual experience. It’s not a film like Donnie Darko, which came out a decade before Drive and similarly inspired a wave of ’80s fetishism among the film’s cultists. Donnie Darko is a period piece set in 1988, whereas Drive intentionally mixes up different eras — it’s a ’70s-style noir with an ’80s-style soundtrack that takes place in “modern” Los Angeles — so it feels like it occurs out of time in a nowhere place. It doesn’t so much cater to the nostalgia of the audience as it centers on nostalgia itself as a subject; you’re always reminded that what you’re seeing was already lost and warmed-over even when the film was new. From the beginning, that familiar dull ache was baked in. Seeing Drive now was like revisiting a 2010s version of an idea of the 1980s.

Recently I’ve seen people online reminisce about the “old” internet as it existed in 2011, which was about the time when social media achieved critical mass and dramatically altered how people interfaced in the digital sphere. Drive exists at the nexus of this change; it points both forward and backward. On the former point, Drive has a Tumblr sensibility, piecing together a mood board of images, sounds, and vibes from other movies, most crucially Walter Hill’s The Driver and Michael Mann’s Thief. Both of those films came out within a few years of each other as the gritty ’70s evolved into the glossy ’80s, and they have a visually pretty/textually ugly aesthetic that Drive utilizes. (Refn’s film, by way of the James Sallis novel it is based on, also borrows some plot and character points from The Driver. Both movies, for instance, feature a blonde, handsome, and a taciturn protagonist who opens the story by pulling off a daring yet mathematically precise car chase from a heist.)

But Drive also presages an internet culture dominated by social media. Unlike the films it references, Drive is glib, melodramatic, obsessed with appearances, and adolescent, just like a typical Twitter feed. In Thief, the action stops for several minutes so that the film’s middle-aged stars, James Caan and Tuesday Weld, can have a conversation in a diner about their personal setbacks and disappointments. There is no such scene in Drive, a film that Refn has said is “about a man who drives around listening to pop songs at night because that’s his emotional relief.” We never learn anything about Gosling’s protagonist that’s deep, real or psychological; he’s signified by his favorite songs and that satin scorpion jacket. He isn’t a grown-up man, he’s an avatar.

One movie that hasn’t been cited by Refn or film critics as an influence on Drive is Taxi Driver. But I kept thinking of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic during my recent rewatch. Both films fixate on the same central metaphor — a car as a kind of “metal coffin” (to borrow Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader’s phrase) that allows a lonely man to be constantly surrounded by people while also being utterly alone. In both Taxi Driver and Drive, it’s the poisoned slow-release capsule that will eventually “drive” the main characters from lives of quiet desperation to shocking acts of graphic violence. You can also use this idea to describe the sensation of being depressed or mentally ill, or the daily experience of going on Facebook.

Of course, it’s possible that I had Taxi Driver on the brain because of Albert Brooks, who is also my favorite part of Drive. Refn was inspired to cast the venerable comedian based on Brooks’ 1985 satire of yuppie consumerism, Lost In America, a film that in the moment seemed designed to dissuade future generations from ever being nostalgic for this self-centered, materialistic decade. While Brooks doesn’t stab anyone in the neck in Lost In America, as he does in Drive, his rage during the famous “nest egg” speech does suggest that he always had the ability to play a villain. In Drive, Brooks’ sleazy film producer-turned-gangster turns to violence out of aggrieved annoyance over being put in a bad position by the incompetents that surround him. He doesn’t want to slice Bryan Cranston’s wrist; he only wanted to put some cash into a stock car, another nest egg that cracked through no fault of his own.

As for Gosling, he is suitably pretty and brooding. But even if Drive is one of his signature films, I can’t help feeling that he’s miscast; I tend to prefer him as an exceptional comic actor who specializes in playing dunces that embarrass themselves by talking too much, as he does in The Nice Guys and La La Land, rather than a guy who talks too little. On the other hand, I think his read on his nameless character in Drive is correct. “The only way to make sense of this is that this is a guy that’s seen too many movies, and he’s started to confuse his life for a film,” he said in 2011. “He’s lost in the mythology of Hollywood and he’s become an amalgamation of all the characters that he admires.”

At the risk of taking the Taxi Driver analogy too far, I think it’s fair to interpret Drive as the fantasy of a solitary loser whose extremely stylized and romantic vision of himself is “true” only in terms of how he presents to the world. If Drive is a first-person film, and I think it is, it puts us in the mind of a guy who makes sense of reality by reducing all interactions down to cool-guy posturing and sweeping synth riffs. For him and the viewer, the windshield is another screen. We see him and he sees us but we’re all alone.