In Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive, written by Hossein Amini, a nameless Hollywood stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night (Ryan Gosling) strikes up a friendship with the girl next door – Irene (Carey Mulligan): taking her and her young son out on drives while the woman’s husband sits locked up in prison. When her husband (Oscar Isaac) comes home, the Driver helps him pull a job to keep Irene and her son safe. When the job goes wrong, what follows is nothing but violence. And I mean real bloody violence.
There’s so much to talk about in this film, from the music to the composition, but what I really want to focus on is the use of color. Spoilers coming up, so just be prepared. Check out the trailer here:
In a film full of cool colors, the presence of red represents an invasion on the Driver’s self-contained lifestyle, leading him to violence and eventually his own destruction. Let’s look at this proven by places, people, and the Driver himself.
The film is full of places splashed in red: from Nino’s Pizzeria (Nino being the guy behind the bloody mess the Driver’s in), the hallway between Irene and the Driver’s apartments, the restaurant where the Driver and Bernie have their last conversation before their deaths, and the Driver’s own bed sheets. But, I want to take a look at my favorite shot. Irene’s kitchen.
This is the first place Irene and the Driver have a real discussion, but before their relationship can even begin to form, there’s a massive obstacle in the way – shown by the massive tiled red wall. In the center of this wall is a picture of Benicio and his father – Irene’s husband – Standard. You can interpret the entire progression of the film from this one scene. The Driver will never be able to hold a place in Irene’s life – symbolized by her home – because of the violent events following the Driver’s involvement with Standard.
This involvement with Standard is also my favorite visual representation of red and a person, but before I look at Standard and the color red, let’s take a moment to acknowledge Irene is always in red. In fact, the very first time we see her, before she and the Driver even interact, she’s wearing a red shirt. Although it’s Standard that eventually leads the Driver into a world of violence, Irene is the only reason he got involved. She’s the catalyst that allows violence to enter into the Driver’s life.
Standard’s character holds an interesting color study. The first time we meet him, he’s framed against an orange wall with a red balloon to his left and a red carpet to his right. He’s wearing cool colors – hinting at his attempt to go straight this time around after his release from prison. However, his background tells a different story – that his life is and will always be awash in violence. The next time we see Standard, he’s beaten up and covered in blood – confirming what the previous scene set up. After this, Standard is only seen wearing cool colors. However, there are still traces of blood on his face, in his hair. He can’t escape it. When he finally dies a bloody death, it’s the ultimate payoff for the use of red and his character.
For the Driver, he spends half of the movie in cool colors: blue shirts, jeans, and of course his silvery bomber jacket with the yellow scorpion patch on the back. The turning point comes after the attack in the motel room. After everyone in the room is dead, the Driver’s face appears covered in fresh blood. From this point on, the rest of his life is nothing but violence and blood.
To illustrate this, the very next scene takes place in a room with red walls and a red carpet as the Driver violently threatens Cook – the man who double-crossed him and got Standard killed. This threatening encounter is followed by the Driver violently kicking a man’s face in – as Irene looks on. This scene, ending with blood splattered on the Driver’s previously pristine jacket – locks in his fate. He’s inextricably tied into this mess. Irene is no longer an option for his future. The only way out now is through violence.
However, this way out isn’t achieved by the Driver inflicted violence on others, but by being stabbed himself. It’s only when everyone else is dead that Irene and Benicio can be safe; this includes the Driver’s death. His peace, and the film’s end, only comes about after he’s been stabbed and he sits in his car, driving down the road, slowly bleeding to death.