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Gendered Music and Silence in Neo-Noir and Melodrama: Analysing Drive (2011)

Published onJul 18, 2022
Gendered Music and Silence in Neo-Noir and Melodrama: Analysing Drive (2011)


Gendered Music and Silence in Neo-Noir and Melodrama: Analysing Drive (2011)
Cáit Murphy, Trinity College Dublin

This essay discusses Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive (2011), focusing especially on its compilation soundtrack and male protagonist’s silence. I draw on various scholars’ writings on sound, gender, and genre tropes, and posit that Drive subverts the gendered expectations for both neo-noir and melodrama films. I argue that the recurring female voiceover (in the form of song lyrics and music) provides emotional nuance in this film, which conspicuously privileges the silence of its male protagonist. I analyse the lyrics of songs such as “Nightcall” by Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx and “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth, which convey emotions not expressed by the film’s silent characters. The film effectively sentimentalises a silent, hardened neo-noir male archetype by filling the emotional gap left by sparse dialogue with expressive voiceover provided by female vocals on the soundtrack. This dialectic demonstrates how Drive reconciles ‘feminine’ melodrama and ‘masculine’ neo-noir through the functions of sound, gender, and genre conventions.


Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive (2011) focuses on a nameless getaway/stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) in Los Angeles, who becomes entangled with the mob. Credited as “Driver” in both Refn’s film and James Sallis’ source novel of the same name, Gosling’s character forms a bond with neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos).1 Driver helps Irene’s ex-criminal husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) run a heist that fails, culminating in Driver’s apparent self-sacrifice to save Irene and Benicio from the mob. Narratively, Drive conforms to the tropes of neo-noir cinema in several ways. Typical of neo-noir, Drive engages with themes of crime, betrayal, and mystery. What’s more, the film is set in a contemporary urban environment, often at night. The narrative is also male-centred. Most importantly for this essay, however, Driver’s persistent silence – a common trope of previous neo-noir films and other male-coded genres – is a striking aspect of its soundtrack. 

While Drive can certainly be described as a ‘masculine’ neo-noir film that places significant emphasis on Driver’s silence and emotional reticence, there is room for further analysis of the significance of silence and sound in establishing the film’s gender codes. This essay reconsiders a film that is ostensibly a male-coded neo-noir crime thriller and looks closer at the melodramatic and gendered qualities of its soundtrack. The elements of melodrama, traditionally considered a ‘feminine,’ sentimental genre, do exist in so-called ‘masculine’ genres like action and westerns, a hybridity that I argue is equally characteristic of the neo-noir style. I posit that Drive expresses aspects of melodrama through its pop compilation score sung almost exclusively by female singers, such as “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth, and “Nightcall” by Kavinsky. A dialogue is created between Driver’s traditionally masculine silence and women’s emotionally authoritative voiceover in pop compilation music. This fusion of offscreen female expressivity through song and almost no expressivity from the male protagonist softens a hardened male neo-noir archetype in an innovative, sentimental, and melodramatic way. 

In the years since its release, Drive’s soundtrack has been analysed from various perspectives. Jonathan Godsall, for instance, discusses the chart popularity of “A Real Hero” following the release of Drive, while Lisa Coulthard has analysed its sound design, specifically the expressive, “overly amplified” sounds of violence, stimulating acoustic disgust.2 However, existing scholarship has yet to investigate the interaction of neo-noir and melodramatic tropes in Drive, a quality best evidenced by the contrast between the film’s silent male protagonist and the prominence lent to female vocals in the film’s richly emotional compilation score. Although detailed, Justin Vicari’s monograph on Refn does not consider the film’s melodramatic qualities or songs like “Nightcall” as a form of female voiceover.3 And although Manon Sophie Euler examines Refn’s representations of genre and masculinity, there is similarly no discussion on melodrama or lyrics as voiceover.4 I aim to place Drive within the context of scholarship on voice, genre, and gender, and to expand our understanding of the film as a stylistically hybrid film that both perpetuates and subverts genre and gender tropes.5

In the first part of this essay, I discuss how Drive perpetuates silence in male characters from French and Hollywood neo-noir, as well as westerns and Refn’s own filmography. This archetype has been analysed by Tania Modleski, as well as in Steve Neale’s psychoanalytical scholarship.6 In the second part, I posit that Drive sets up a dialectic between neo-noir and the melodramatic mode, between emotionlessness and emotionality, through its silent protagonist and the expressivity of its compilation soundtrack. To achieve this, I will begin by contextualising traditional uses of voiceover and music in noir/neo-noir and melodrama. I will then closely examine the lyrical content, musical techniques, and positioning of songs in Refn’s film, where female vocals form a type of non-diegetic, disembodied acousmêtre (offscreen voice), to use Michel Chion’s term.7 While Drive is well-known for its original electronic score by Cliff Martinez, my focus is on the pre-existing pop songs featured on the soundtrack, as these songs most contribute to my argument on the significance of the sung female voice in Drive. The lyrics sung in the film by acousmatic female voices often serve a narrational role. Where access to Driver’s interiority is limited due to the film’s scant dialogue, sentimentality is made possible through song, giving a significant position of emotional authority to female voices. It is in this way that the gendered distinctions between traditionally ‘feminine’ melodrama and ‘masculine’ neo-noir become blurred in Drive.

Drive and the Silent Archetype

Firstly, it is fundamental to discuss the context from which Drive perpetuates much of its genre and character tropes and how gender, voice, and, alternatively, the absence of voice is codified in Drive. Chion notes the more cinema “allows us to hear silence as such – silence in the sense of suspension of dialogue – the more value it gives to muteness.”8 Indeed, much of the popular discourse on Drive in 2011 focused on Gosling’s suspension of dialogue and emotional blankness. For example, in The Observer, Philip French comments, “Gosling, an actor with a face that’s currently developing character and registering experience … communicates through fleeting smiles and slight grimaces.”9 Adam Smith for Empire similarly comments, “Gosling pushes the strong, silent … type almost, but only almost, to parody.”10 Smith’s comment is certainly supported by scholarship, including Stella Bruzzi’s, which examines men’s pervasive silence and cool blankness as archetypical signifiers of idealised masculinity in, for example, Jean-Pierre Melville’s French policier (gangster/detective) films of the 1960s and 70s, and Melville’s lasting impact on the style of American neo-noir films like Drive.11 

The media’s response to Driver’s silence was supported by Gosling’s and Refn’s promotional appearances. In a Cannes Film Festival interview in 2011, Gosling comments, “I think I only say five things in the movie … every morning we would go through and cut out the dialogue and try and say only what was absolutely necessary.”12 This extremely efficient approach to dialogue draws attention to silence as an alternative to verbal exposition. Gosling comments on this precise quality: “I don’t think you need all of this talking in movies. Sometimes it’s easier to get the point across if you’re not saying something. The audience is smart; they can see how somebody feels.”13 Between Refn and Gosling (and screenwriter Hossein Amini), the choice was made to fill the emotional gaps left by dialogue with music. Interestingly, for the purposes of analysing its genre qualities, the replacement of vocalised feelings with musical accompaniments is an aesthetic choice scholars have attributed to classical film melodrama.14 In pre-production, the film’s conception was musically informed, according to Refn. Gosling was to play a character who “drives around in a car at night, listening to pop music that gives him emotional relief.”15 Based on Gosling’s and Refn’s comments, we can conclude that a concerted effort was put into upholding the protagonist’s silence and emotional reticence, while emphasising the narrative role of musical accompaniments. The creative choice of silence and emotionlessness, however, is not a radically new or unexpected one, particularly in male-coded genres like neo-noir or westerns.

Driver’s silence certainly perpetuates an archetype from other films and genres that privilege verbal reticence in traditional male heroes. Firstly, Refn’s film partly restages the Hollywood neo-noir film The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978). Refn has been open about the influence of Hill’s film on Drive.16 The Driver similarly focuses on a nameless get-away driver (Ryan O’Neal) in Los Angeles, while Refn’s film replicates the The Driver’s opening car chase. Secondly, The Driver itself partly adapts Melville’s neo-noir film Le samouraï (1967), about loner hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon). In both films, the protagonists strikingly only speak for functional necessity. This archetype is also seen in westerns, such as Clint Eastwood’s nameless protagonist in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (1964-1966). The conventional narrative of Drive (i.e., a mysterious stranger rescues a woman and her son from criminals before leaving the town) is certainly evocative of A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964). This western influence highlights that Drive combines elements of genres other than neo-noir. 

Refn’s filmmaking clearly perpetuates the archetypical verbal and emotional reticence in the male heroes of neo-noir and this silent male archetype continues to appear in contemporary neo-noir. Julian (Gosling) in Refn’s neo-noir film Only God Forgives (2013) and police officer Martin (Miles Teller) in Refn’s Amazon Prime investigative neo-noir miniseries Too Old to Die Young (2019) are even more silent and emotionally reticent than Driver. For instance, Julian strikingly only has 17 lines of dialogue. One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Refn’s period thriller Valhalla Rising (2009) is completely mute. Notable neo-noir films made after Drive (and besides those directed by Refn) featuring silent, stoic male protagonists include John Wick (Chad Stahelski, 2014), described by Robert Arnett as “a discourse with previous noir films”; You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017); and the neo-noir/sci-fi hybrid Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017), in which Gosling also stars, demonstrating an enduring interest in exploring this type in Hollywood.17

The silent male character is not a pervasive trope in all genres, however. It is worth noting that in classical noir, male voiceover narration is at least vocally at odds with silent protagonists in the neo-noir films of Melville and Refn, for example. According to Chion’s broad definition, the offscreen voice of the acousmêtre may be revealed in the diegesis (“de-acousmatization”) or never at all.18 The male acousmêtre of 1940s and early 50s noir is an archetype whose authoritative voiceover introduces flashbacks or reveals emotions. Kaja Silverman highlights that in noir, “the voiceover is autobiographical and self-revealing,” displaying what is not already visible.19 Chion posits that the male voiceover in noir suggests omniscience, authority, and panoptical control.20 So, what does this mean for silent onscreen male protagonists in neo-noir?

Paradoxically, the almost mute neo-noir male also conveys omnipotence. As Chion notes, silent or mute characters are “taken as more or less all-seeing, all-knowing, often even all-powerful.”21 Citing Laura Mulvey’s theories, Neale similarly connects male silence with omnipotence.22 In Mulvey’s and Neale’s terms, the idealised, active male “screen surrogate” is the subject with whom the spectator identifies.23 Looking at Le samouraï, Neale posits that the protagonist’s silence is linked to the construction of the ideal male ego: 

The acquisition of language is a process profoundly challenging to the narcissism of early childhood … Language is a process … involving absence and lack, and these are what threaten any image of the self as totally enclosed, self-sufficient, omnipotent.24

Like other traditional male heroes, Driver demonstrates agency, taking (to a certain degree) the action-oriented narrative trajectory from one situation to another, responding to violence with violence, rather than passivity. Like Eastwood’s and Delon’s protagonists, Driver’s silence emphasises an omnipotent and self-sufficient ego; not only is he able to exert control over other characters, he is also in command of his own ego. While not every action in the narrative may be within the neo-noir protagonist’s control (like a failed heist in Drive or an unwanted witness in Le samouraï), the strong omnipotence and self-containment conveyed by his silence somewhat makes up for his damaged ego.25 This is true of neo-noir more generally: verbal asceticism is often matched by the protagonist’s emotionally closed-off lifestyle. In Le samouraï, Costello lives in a minimally furnished Parisian apartment; Gosling’s character in Drive similarly lives in a plain L.A. apartment with few possessions. Apart from his relationship with his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston), Driver initially has no emotional ties or personal history.

Beyond the confines of noir/neo-noir films, Driver’s silence and emotional self-control conform to a traditional representation of masculinity in cinema more generally. As Roger Horrocks notes of westerns, “This is the demand made by patriarchy to men: deaden yourself, show no feelings, do not speak, carry out your duties and don’t complain, and then die … the hero is obliged to suffer in silence.”26 Tania Modleski describes this masculinity as “melancholic.” According to Modleski, the internalised, narcissistic suffering of the male hero in ‘masculine’ genres has a privileged position in cinema culture over the outward “drivel” of “women’s films,” another subgenre of Hollywood cinema popular in the 1940s and 50s, which typically focussed on women’s sacrifices and desires.27 The strong (predominantly white) male archetype, meanwhile, stifles tears and takes on the burdens of others who are framed as more vulnerable in the narrative (often women and ethnic minorities) as a form of self-sacrifice.28 Appropriately, Modleski analyses Eastwood’s directorial career and his strong but silent western figure in Leone’s Dollars trilogy, to which Drive pays some homage. 

Evidently, Drive conforms to this model. As Irene’s husband Standard owes debts to the mob, this poses a threat to her and Benicio. Driver helps Standard repay this money by running a heist, but Standard is killed at the collection point. Driver then risks his own life to protect Irene and Benicio from mob boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks). Driver takes on these burdens stoically, conforming to a convention that upholds men to the ideals of saviourhood while withholding emotionality.29

However, often the distinction between conventionally masculine and feminine archetypes in gender-coded genres is not so clear-cut. Modleski makes the valuable point that the strict differentiation between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ genres does little to recognise their overlap: “Pathos and sentiment often lurk in those masculine genre films where they might appear to be utterly absent.”30 It is also worth mentioning that critics such as Scott Higgins have analysed the melodramatic pathos of masculine action films, for example.31 Indeed, emotionality can be found in graphically violent neo-noir, westerns, and crime thrillers. This is an important consideration when looking at Refn’s work, which prioritises violent crime thrillers and male characters. Despite Refn’s conscious bias towards male protagonists before making The Neon Demon (2016), he is quoted as saying in an interview, appropriately titled “HARD MEN,” “I consider my films very feminine.”32 Indeed, the ostensive coldness in Driver is changed by his gradual closeness to Irene and Benicio, who inspire sentimentality in him. The introduction of a sentimental and, crucially, female connection takes Driver through a trajectory away from his controlled existence. This is another typical narrative feature of noir/neo-noir. For example, in both The Driver and in Le samouraï, a female witness shows sympathy for the male protagonist, but also disrupts his lifestyle (ultimately, leading to Costello’s death in the latter case). However, unlike Hill’s and Melville’s protagonists, the softening of the Driver character in Refn’s film is significantly supported by a highly emotional pop compilation soundtrack sung by female singers. 

Lyrics as Voiceover in Drive

Before looking at the compilation score of Drive, I will firstly highlight the varied conventions of music, voiceover, and gender representations in noir, melodrama, and “women’s films,” which conformed to the tropes of melodrama but were specifically concerned with female suffering and desire. On the subject of noir, Silverman notes that “male subjectivity is most fully realized [or “idealized”] when it is least visible—when it approaches a kind of theological threshold” in a position that is “bodiless” and authoritative.33 For example, in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), Joe Gillis’s (William Holden) voice is posthumously detached from his body, creating offscreen omnipotence in the noir. Historically, the offscreen female voice is privileged more so in “women’s films.” For instance, in Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948) Lisa’s (Joan Fontaine) letter to her former lover Stefan (Louis Jourdan) is read in her posthumous voiceover, in a retrospective, autobiographical fashion. On the importance of non-diegetic voiceover narration, Mary Ann Doane (similarly to Silverman) states that 

As a form of direct address, it speaks without mediation to the audience, by-passing the “characters” and establishing a complicity between itself and the spectator … It is precisely because the voice is not localizable, because it cannot be yoked to a body, that it is capable of interpreting the image.34

However, the female acousmêtre is almost always synchronised with a living diegetic character on screen, as it is in Ophüls’s film. While Lisa, like Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, is posthumously heard through voiceover, we see Gillis’s onscreen corpse detached from his offscreen voice, suggesting theological omnipotence. Silverman argues that apart from vocals in music, the fully disembodied woman’s voice is unusual in Hollywood cinema, due to its omniscient, all-seeing connotations, in the extreme case associated with an unnerving, supernatural quality in Mrs Bates in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), as Chion studies.35 In classical cinema, the female voice is almost always synchronised with a “bodied” woman on screen, conventionally positioned as the passive “looked-at.”36

Neo-noir is capable of revising or restaging these conventions.37 For example, in Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014), a female voiceover narrator Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) appears minimally onscreen, introduces the plot, and comments on the male protagonist, revising the trope of the male voiceover in noir. Conventionally, Irene’s presence in Drive is diegetic, visible on screen. She is not the primary agent in the narrative trajectory and she is rescued by the film’s male hero. Male narrative agency is typical of the westerns Drive alludes to; however, this is sometimes complicated in noir/neo-noir, due to the trajectories of betrayal and mystery. Blanche (Christina Hendricks), who betrays Driver during the heist, evokes the femme fatale figure of noir (perhaps framed as a corrupt counterpart to Irene’s innocence) and is quickly and brutally killed. However, central to my interpretation of Drive, completely offscreen female voices (heard throughout the film’s compilation score) provide commentary on Driver’s and Irene’s feelings, vocalising what is not accommodated in the diegesis. While gender conventions certainly do appear in Drive, offscreen female voiceover heard in the form of the soundtrack’s pre-existing pop songs accrues a position of emotional authority that is relatively unusual in male-centred films. 

For the purpose of analysing its melodramatic qualities, it is significant that Drive replaces dialogue and emotions with music and lyrics. A crucial aspect of film melodrama and its theatrical predecessor, derived from the Greek melos (music), is music that expresses what the narrative cannot contain. Thomas Elsaesser defines film melodrama as a “dramatic narrative in which musical accompaniment marks the emotional effects.”38 What is repressed, not verbalised, or eschewed by the characters in the diegesis can be expressed musically. According to Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, the “undischarged emotion” not accommodated by the narrative is, to some extent, substituted by orchestral music in melodrama.39 Driver’s and Irene’s feelings are not vocalised but expressed by a compilation of synth pop songs. 

My focus now is the lyrical content of songs featured on the compilation soundtrack of Drive, and how female voices address the characters and provide expressivity. Although having collaborated on several projects with Martinez, Refn often uses compilation soundtracks. In films that privilege the absence of dialogue, as Refn’s often do, pop music provides emotional nuance for characters. Ronald Rodman posits that pop compilation scores are “more than just pleasant tunes plugged into a film” and can take on the emotional and narrative functions of classical film scoring.40 Pop music in so-called ‘masculine’ genres is certainly capable of achieving the same emotional impact with audiences as the classical scoring of ‘feminine’ Hollywood melodrama. Heidi Wilkins notes of compilation soundtracks in male-centred Hollywood films, “Music is used semantically to evoke meaning about the characters, whilst maintaining a sense of the alienated male through silencing the film’s diegesis.”41 While other contemporary neo-noir films prioritise men’s silence, as previously mentioned, one element that sets Drive apart from these other examples is its almost exclusively female-voiced soundtrack, which functions in dialogue with the male character’s diegetic silence.

The first non-diegetic track in Drive is “Tick of the Clock” by Chromatics and plays during the opening getaway sequence, which is almost completely wordless. Although Chromatics’ music usually features the lead vocals of Ruth Radelet, this track is purely instrumental. Driver barely speaks to the burglars who have hired him, only stating the conditions of his work: “You give me a time and a place, I give you a five-minute window.” Driver privileges anonymity, a quality reinforced by his silence. Refn’s film immediately sets up Gosling’s character as methodical and verbally reticent. The sound effects in this sequence are minimal, with the sounds of the car and police radios being the most prominent. The opening is followed by the title sequence and a non-diegetic synth track, “Nightcall,” sung by Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx. Previous silence is counteracted by “Nightcall,” which plays out a dialogue between an observant woman (Lovefoxxx) and a male driver (Kavinsky). Kavinsky’s voice has been electronically altered, sounding gruffer and more ‘masculine,’ but also robotic and non-human. The lyrics underpin the film’s narrative and suggest what is not said between Driver and Irene: 

(Kavinsky) I’m giving you a night call to tell you how I feel

[…] I’m gonna tell you something you don’t want to hear

I’m gonna show you where it’s dark but have no fear

(Lovefoxxx) There’s something inside you

It’s hard to explain

They’re talking about you, boy

But you’re still the same

Lovefoxxx’s vocals serve a dual function, both within the dialogue of “Nightcall” and as a non-diegetic female acousmêtre for the film’s opening sequence. From the offscreen space, her vocals describe Kavinsky’s gruff persona within the dialogue of the song but also the characterisation of Driver in the diegesis. Appropriately, “Nightcall” plays over aerial shots of Los Angeles, which give a god-like omniscient view of the city and Driver below. The cinematography mirrors the non-diegetic female voiceover (through song lyrics), who speaks with authority. Driver’s car in traffic is distant, anonymous, and he is emotionless, while Kavinsky’s electronically altered vocals seem non-human. The female voice (in this case, Lovefoxxx’s) is curious and observational, and the second person “you” alludes to Driver’s interiorisation of thoughts. Driver never tells Irene how he feels, just as Irene never learns his history. “Nightcall” therefore highlights the archetypical, traditionally masculine qualities of Driver passed down from westerns and neo-noir films like Le samouraï.42 In Drive, the song importantly gives an offscreen, narrational role to a female acousmêtre.

As their relationship develops, music becomes the most vocal expression of Driver’s and Irene’s feelings. After Driver fixes Irene’s car at the garage where he works, he drives her and Benicio through the emptied L.A. River. This driving sequence is in diegetic silence, during which the non-diegetic synthpop song “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth is heard for the first time, similarly using second person to address Driver in the diegesis:

Back against the wall and odds

With the strength of a will and a cause

Your pursuits are called outstanding

You’re emotionally complex

[…] you have proved to be

A real human being, and a real hero.

The female singer (Bronwyn Griffin of Electric Youth) seemingly addresses Driver, asserting that although he is an archetypical hero, he is also a “real human being” with emotional complexity. As the song plays, we gradually see Driver growing closer to Irene and Benicio. Driver carries the sleeping Benicio home at the end of this montage. “A Real Hero” vocalises the dialectic in the film of emotion and emotionlessness, between light and dark. Interestingly, the montage takes place during daylight and at night, evoking both Irene’s non-criminal, pleasant world, and the dark, criminal underbelly in which Driver makes a living. Driver’s moral struggle between light and dark also highlights the film’s melodramatic qualities. Melodrama is often invested in explicit struggles between good and evil, or what Linda Williams describes as melodrama’s representation of moralistic “Manichaeism.”43 According to Williams, melodrama prioritises “beset victims” and the “retrieval and staging of virtue through adversity and suffering.”44 This reading can certainly apply to the narrative of Drive, in which innocence is corrupted by evil and victims suffer, evoked by the lyrics of “A Real Hero.”

Importantly, the song’s emotions are mirrored by the cinematography, which uses soft, romantic lighting. While “Nightcall” plays over distant aerial shots, close-up shots during the film’s “A Real Hero” montage bring the audience closer to Driver’s emotional development (Griffin’s soft voice also contrasts with Kavinsky’s gruff, robotic voice in “Nightcall”). The camera position alternates between both sides of the car’s interior as they drive, showing Irene smiling and looking at Driver, and taking her approximate point-of-view (Figure 1). This cinematography, supported by the non-diegetic score as well as the small gesture of Irene holding his hand, suggests that she is falling in love with him. This style counters the archetypical male subjectivity of the film’s neo-noir narrative and softens the protagonist. Crucially, this sequence and its musical accompaniment vividly reflect the dialectic relationship established in Drive between silence and expressivity. What is ostensibly a cold ‘masculine’ neo-noir film is simultaneously imbued with melodramatic, romantic, and more ‘feminine’ qualities. 

Figure 1. “A Real Hero” plays during an otherwise silent sequence in which Driver takes Irene and Benicio to the L.A. River.

Music in Drive continues to have a profoundly meaningful role in the articulation of Driver’s and Irene’s developing relationship, drawing the viewer into the subjectivity of the characters. Wilkins highlights that like non-diegetic music, diegetic music can signify emotions relating to the characters; however, “to have a meaningful impact it must be foregrounded on the soundtrack” and not be a secondary soundscape, as per Claudia Gorbman’s influential description of music’s subordinance to narrative and voice in classical Hollywood scoring.45 Wilkins specifies loud diegetic jazz music played by female characters as an expression of uncontainable or repressed desire in melodrama and noir.46 In Drive, instead of jazz music, the soft diegetic synthpop track (notably, “Under Your Spell” by Desire) conveys romantic feelings in a film that intentionally limits the use of dialogue as a function of meaning. The importance of diegetic music is most apparent when it becomes non-diegetic, exemplifying what Robynn Stilwell terms the “fantastical gap.”47 This “gap” creates a liminal, ambiguous space between the world of the film – or diegesis – and what lies outside of it: 

When that boundary between diegetic and non-diegetic is traversed, it does always mean … its magic and its danger, the sense of unreality that always obtains as we leap from one solid edge toward another.48

This oscillation can draw the audience into the subjectivity of a character, who hears what the audience hears. In Drive, the fantastical gap appears when Irene’s husband Standard returns from prison, disrupting her possibly romantic relationship with Driver. Irene holds a homecoming party in their apartment, although she is ambivalent about Standard’s return. Driver does not attend. Instead, he fixes car parts in his darkened apartment, lit only by a single lamp. At first, “Under Your Spell” by female vocalist Desire plays diegetically at the party. The muffled sound can be heard by Driver in his apartment, creating a clear physical and sonic disparity between him (and the audience) and Irene. At this point, it is made quite explicit that song lyrics underpin the narrative and the emotions it cannot contain or articulate through dialogue:

I don’t eat

I don’t sleep

I do nothing but think of you

You keep me under your spell.

While the diegetic “Under Your Spell” plays quietly in the background, Standard makes a speech at the party expressing his appreciation for Irene’s loyalty during his prison stretch. At this moment the song becomes louder and non-diegetic. The scene cuts from a close-up of Irene to Driver and back again, suggesting they are thinking of each other. In this scene the sonically foregrounded female voice, moving between diegetic and non-diegetic, seems to vocalise what Irene does not say to Driver due to her responsibilities as a wife and mother. The use of music as a substitute for dialogue is highly evocative of film melodrama. The theme of female desire is also especially reminiscent of ‘women’s films.’ The muffling of diegetic sound creates emotional and physical distance for the characters and audience, while the louder non-diegetic score works to bring the audience, Driver, and Irene closer – the fantastical gap in effect. When Driver emerges from his apartment, the song returns to diegetic and muffled. Irene is sitting in the hallway alone and apologises to him for the noise. Standard disrupts the brief conversation and approaches Driver in a passive-aggressive manner. The song ends, signalling the end of their possible romance. The bliss of the earlier driving sequence cannot be sustained as the criminal world encroaches. In this scene, we see Driver is positioned between being on-the-inside and on-the-outside, being near and distant, being sentimental or emotionally closed-off. This scene represents the central dialectical struggle in the film, between emotion and emotionlessness, between feminine musical expressivity and masculine silence, and between the qualities of sentimental melodrama and cold neo-noir. 

At a later point in the film, Driver confronts the mob anonymously at Nino’s restaurant, wearing a mask. Riz Ortolani’s orchestral, impassioned “Oh My Love,” sung by Katyna Ranieri, plays non-diegetically and again highlights unspoken feelings in the film: 

Oh my love

Look and see

The sun rising from the river

[…] But this light

Is not for those men

Still lost in

An old black shadow.

In this scene, the mask, which restricts facial expressivity and likely speech, emphasises the protagonist’s struggle between emotion and emotionlessness. As with the earlier scene at the L.A. River, the cinematography appears to reflect wider tensions and themes in the film. The camera closes on Driver’s face through the glass door of the restaurant, bringing us closer to his interiority, and yet his masked face shows no expression. The glass also creates a second barrier between us and Driver’s real face. The scene is captured partly in slow-motion, emphasising the heroic nature of Driver’s motives: he sees himself as a saviour with a moral duty to protect the vulnerable.49 While we cannot see Driver’s face, Ranieri’s deep, romantic vocals remind the listener that Driver has developed emotional complexity, from being a loner to a figure who cares for others. The lyrics vocalise the film’s dialectic of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ reminding the viewer that he is doing this for Irene. 

The final scenes of Drive foreground the film’s central themes of hardened, silently sacrificial, heroic masculinity and Driver’s developed emotional complexity. Driver kills Bernie but is stabbed during their struggle and is bleeding in silence. He drives in darkness, seemingly leaving L.A. and in no clear direction. His future is uncertain. However, he has ensured that Irene and Benicio are safe from the mob. This act of self-sacrifice is accompanied by the non-diegetic “A Real Hero” again, which reminds the audience of the previous blissful scene with Irene at the river. Godsall notes the significant repetition of “A Real Hero”: 

Dialogue is absent on both of these occasions, while sound effects are only occasional and unobtrusive; the music can be clearly heard … Both audibility and repetition of music are significant factors in a film’s ability to popularize that music with its audiences.50

Because of its repetition, this song can be considered a leitmotif, a recurring musical piece that the audience associates with a particular sentiment, character, time, or location. The leitmotif is a significant mode of access to female subjectivity in ‘women’s films’ of the 1940s and 50s. As Heather Laing notes, “The predominant association of music with the principle female character … marks her emotions as particularly important.”51 Although associated generally with classical music and the classical Hollywood era, the idea of the leitmotif has been applied to more contemporary films and compilation scores. For example, in his chapter titled “The Popular Song as Leitmotif” Rodman analyses pop music leitmotifs in Quentin Tarantino’s films and Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996).52 Considering Rodman’s modern (or post-modern) view of the leitmotif, while acknowledging its traditional role in the creation of female subjectivity in classical melodrama, it is possible to see “A Real Hero” as a pop leitmotif. The song not only conveys Driver’s memories of a past, happy moment and the lyrical references to heroism and romance, but the female vocals of “A Real Hero” may also convey Irene’s feelings, who is not present with him. 

During the final scene and closing titles, the omniscient, disembodied female acousmêtre (provided by vocalist Bronwyn Griffin of Electric Youth) reasserts the emotional complexity of Driver, who has proven to be a “hero” and “human being.” In a stoic manner, he has forfeited his chance of romance with Irene by using violent means to protect her and Benicio. He is wordless and the diegesis is silenced. The dark road ahead suggests death and loneliness. However, the acousmêtre created through the scene’s musical accompaniment by Electric Youth and College suggests that virtue is still possible for Driver. As with “Nightcall” in the opening, “A Real Hero” encapsulates the central dialectic of the film that I have explored throughout this essay. On the one hand, his silence, heroism, and melancholy support archetypical masculinity. On the other, music vocalises his feelings and gives sentimentality to the film and its protagonist. What is ostensibly an emotionally austere film concludes in a profoundly melodramatic way, countering a male protagonist’s silence with female vocality. This broadens the potential for the softening of the hardened male hero, bestowed with newfound emotionality. Drive partly restages and partly revises a cold neo-noir archetype, by investing in the melodramatic mode through song. 


The importance of the Drive soundtrack in vocalising emotion where there is otherwise verbal reticence in the protagonist stresses its intersections of melodrama and neo-noir, which are traditionally gendered ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ modes of address, respectively. Driver certainly fits a model that can be described as traditionally masculine and typical of male-coded genres. However, with further examination, the qualities of melodrama appear in Drive through the crucial combination of music and what I have interpreted here as female voiceover. While the protagonist in Drive is certainly Gosling’s character, the score offers an offscreen space for female expressivity, thus affording what we might view as the acousmatic female vocals a position of emotional and narrational authority, conveyed through the effective techniques of the fantastical gap, the leitmotif, and complementary cinematography. Ultimately, the development of emotional complexity in Driver has been made possible through song. Although Drive restages tropes of masculine neo-noir, the film’s sonic dialectic partially revises gender and genre tropes. I hope that this essay, by offering a new reading of Drive and its soundtrack, will broaden our understanding of the film’s aesthetic and narrative debts to neo-noir and melodrama. Furthermore, this essay encourages the analysis of popular song, sound, gender, and – crucially – silence in Drive


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Godsall, Jonathan. Reeled In: Pre-existing Music in Narrative Film. London: Routledge, 2019.

Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. London: BFI, 1987. 

Higgins, Scott. “Suspenseful Situations: Melodramatic Narrative and the Contemporary Action Film.” Cinema Journal, no. 2 (2008): 74-96.

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Modleski, Tania. “Clint Eastwood and Male Weepies.” American Literary History, no. 1 (2010): 136-158. 

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Rodman, Ronald. “The Popular Song as Leitmotif in 1990s Film.” In Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film, edited by Robynn Stilwell, 119-136. London: Routledge, 2006. 

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Cáit Murphy is a PhD candidate based in the Department of Film at Trinity College Dublin. Her research focuses on new “caméra-stylos” of the social media era. With NECSUS, she has published “The Filmmaker as Instagram Auteur: A Case Study on Claire Denis,” which analyses auteur-director self-promotion and aesthetics on Instagram. In 2022, she also presented research and practice papers at the UCD Humanities Institute PhD Conference (“The Somatic Thresholds of Palestinian Activist Videos on Instagram”) and the Irish Screen Studies Seminar (“Google Mapping Blow-Up: A Desktop Remediation”).

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