Skip to content

You’ve Got Male: How ‘Drive’ Resurrects Badassery


He sits behind the wheel of a getaway car, hands resting at three and nine o’clock. (Are those driving gloves he’s wearing? The Euro-couture kind with the aerated holes over the knuckles?) A toothpick moves lazily over his lower lip. He’s waiting, patiently, for someone to exit a warehouse and join his partner in the backseat. “I give you a five minute window,” he’d informed them earlier. “Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. Anything happens a minute on either side of that and you’re on your own.” Never mind that you recognize him from swoonier fare like The Notebook. In Drive, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s glorious adaptation of James Sallis’ 2005 novel about a stunt driver who moonlights as a criminal wheelman, he’s a professional — a (Michael) Mann’s man. Test him, and you’ll be picking your teeth off the pavement.

As played by Ryan Gosling, Driver — as he’s credited, for maximum iconographic appeal — channels a long line of tight-lipped tough guys: from Lee Marvin’s flinty ’60s antiheroes to the underworld existentialists of hard-boiled ’80s gems such as To Live and Die in L.A. And given the bleak, bipolar men dotting the pop-cultural landscape these days, Gosling’s vintage version of unflappable manliness couldn’t be more welcome.

Turn on ABC next month and prepare to be subjected to a parade of programs that manage to be both chauvinistic and emasculating: Work It has two guys donning dresses for fear of a female-dominated workplace; Man Up and Last Man Standing scream reactionary chromosome panic. The characters in those sitcoms have probably spent too much time at the movies, where masculinity has been reduced to cartoonish extremes. Choose an action film, and you’re likely revisiting childhood supermen or being confronted by steroidal parodies (we’re looking at you in Killer Elite, Jason Statham). Go for a comedy, and you end up with Apatovian beta males whose emotions are largely tied up in the diminishing value of their comic-book collections. Where are our relatable yet charismatic ambassadors of badass-itude — our Eastwoods, our Bronsons, our McQueens?

Watch: Drive trailer

Into this gap steps Gosling’s mostly silent Driver, the perfect throwback to an era when men wore Hai Karate and were comfortable in their own skin. Unlike the gym rats racing around in a certain car-chase franchise, this horsepower whisperer is fast and curious. He’s long past snickering over his first porno, and that alone makes him a bona fide adult, compared to the fratty thirtysomethings in the forthcoming A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, who stage one last blowout at an unfortunate parent’s house. Yet despite his nearly chaste tenderness toward next-door neighbor Carey Mulligan, Gosling’s white knight isn’t above extreme brutality. When mobsters Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks (yes, that Albert Brooks) threaten the few things he holds dear, shotguns are pulled, faces get rearranged, and don’t even ask what happens with a hammer.

Drive probably wasn’t conceived as a direct reaction to the testosterone-über-alles brutes and regressive bromances of modern cinema. In fact, Winding Refn’s mixtape of crime-flick tropes — from Miami Vice-style neon-lit night rides to shoot-outs in shitty motel rooms — may come off like a guilty-pleasure tour of pulpy pastiche, and his insistence on treating women as either helpless or whorish is, genre convention be damned, cringe-worthy. But Drive transcends the posturing. When Gosling walks the fine line between unsentimental paternalism and take-no-shit toughness, his character is, in his own selectively sensationalist way, a dignified melding of one generation’s unknowable fathers with their emotionally engaged sons.

So where the hell can I get a pair of those driving gloves?

No ride is memorable without the perfect soundtrack. For Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn and composer/former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez created just that, choosing hypnotic, retro-sexy synth jams — most memorably the nu-disco theme “A Real Hero” by College featuring Electric Youth — and combining it with a chilling, vintage-sounding score. “Rock music didn’t suit the movie I was making,” says Refn. “I wanted to make a fairy tale, which is all about truth and purity, but the subtext is violence.”Behold their influences:

“[Driver] is half man, half machine,” says Refn. “But the machinery, his car, is an antique. Late 70s bands like Kraftwerk inspired my idea of making a movie where the score was electronic, but at an infant stage — crude in its technology, yet extremely poetic.”

Kraftwerk, “Radioaktivität”

Drive is like Pretty in Pink with a head smash,” says Refn. “When I was cutting the movie, people kept asking, ‘Why are you using the entire songs?’ I said, ‘Because John Hughes did.’ It almost becomes a musical in that sense.”

Sixteen Candles trailer

“Nicolas told me that this was his all time favorite film,” says Martinez. “There were times when I would play him something and he’d say, ‘That’s nice, but can you give me more of a Leatherface thing?’ We wanted to put a horror tone into a film that isn’t horror.”

Texas Chainsaw Massacre scene

Read the entire September 2011 issue of SPIN, available now for iPad.