Published in 2005, producers Marc Platt and Adam Siegel optioned Sallis's novel after Siegel read a review from Publishers Weekly. Adapting the book proved to be challenging for Amini as it had a nonlinear narrative. Gosling was one of Platt's top casting choices, eventually signing on for the lead as he wanted to star in an action-oriented project. Gosling played a pivotal role in the film's production, which included hiring Refn as director, and Beth Mickle as production designer. On a production budget of about $15 million, filming commenced on September 25, 2010, shot on location in various parts of Los Angeles, and concluded on November 12.
The unnamed Driver works as a mechanic, a stunt double, a stunt driver, as well as a criminal-for-hire getaway car driver. His jobs are all managed by auto shop owner Shannon, who persuades Jewish mobsters Bernie Rose and Nino to purchase a car for the Driver to race. The Driver meets his new neighbor, Irene, and becomes close to her and her young son, Benicio. Irene's husband, Standard Gabriel, is in prison. After Standard is released, Irene still asks the Driver to visit them.
Standard owes protection money from his time in prison and is beaten up by Albanian gangster Cook, who demands that Standard rob a pawnshop for $40,000 to pay off the debt. Cook gives Benicio a bullet as a symbol that he and his mother are in danger. The Driver, concerned for the safety of Irene and Benicio, offers to act as the getaway driver for the pawnshop robbery.
The job goes awry when the pawnshop owner shoots and kills Standard while the Driver is waiting for him with Cook's accomplice, Blanche. Pursued by a mysterious adversary, the Driver and Blanche escape after an intense car chase. The Driver hides with Blanche in a motel where he learns from a news report that Standard, according to the pawnshop owner, performed the robbery by himself and that no money had been stolen. When she lies about being oblivious to the second car when the Driver interrogates her, he slaps Blanche and threatens to hurt her to get her to talk. Blanche then admits that the bag contains a million dollars and that she and Cook planned to re-steal the money using the car that chased them. Two of Cook's men ambush them in the motel room, and kill Blanche before the Driver manages to kill them both.
At the auto shop, Shannon offers to hide the money, but the Driver refuses. He hunts down Cook in a strip club, smashes his fingers with a hammer, threatens to kill him, and force-feeds him the bullet that was given to Benicio. Cook reveals that Nino was behind the robbery. The Driver decides to return the money, but Nino dismisses the offer and instead sends a hit man to the Driver's apartment building. Entering the elevator with Irene, the Driver encounters the hit man. He then kisses Irene, and brutally beats the hit man to death. Afterwards, Irene leaves the elevator stunned and horrified.
At his pizzeria, Nino reveals to Bernie that a low-level Philadelphia wise guy from the "East Coast mob" stashed the money at the pawnshop. Since anyone tied to the robbery could lead the East Coast Mafia to them, they need to kill everyone involved. Bernie warns Nino that nobody steals from the Italian Mob. Nino is angry because the Italian Mob has marginalized and insulted him because of his Jewish heritage. He convinces Bernie to follow his plan. Bernie then murders Cook, as he is the sole witness to their agreement. After Shannon refuses to divulge the whereabouts of the Driver, Bernie kills him at the auto shop with a straight razor.
The Driver, disguising himself with a rubber mask from his stuntman job, follows Nino from the pizzeria to the Pacific Coast Highway and T-bones Nino's car onto a beach, then chases him from the wreck to the ocean and drowns him. He makes a phone call to Irene to tell her he is leaving and that meeting her and Benicio was the best thing that ever happened to him. The Driver goes to meet Bernie, who promises that Irene will be safe in exchange for the money. He gives Bernie the money, but Bernie attempts to kill him, stabbing him in the stomach. Driver pulls out his own knife and fatally stabs Bernie. Driver then abandons the money and leaves. Irene knocks at the Driver's apartment, but gets no response. The Driver drives off into the night.
The novel Drive by James Sallis was published in 2005. Producers Marc Platt and Adam Siegel of Marc Platt Productions optioned the novel after Siegel read a review in Publishers Weekly. The driver intrigued Siegel because he was "the kind of character you rarely see anymore – he was a man with a purpose; he was very good at one thing and made no apologies for it". The character interested Platt, because he reminded him of movie heroes he looked up to as a child, characters typically portrayed by Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood.
Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Hossein Amini adapted the novel for the screen. He felt it was a rare book to receive from a studio because it was short, gloomy, and like a poem. Since the novel does not present a linear story, but has many flashbacks and jumps around in time, Amini found the adaptation challenging. He felt the non-linear structure made it "a very tricky structure" for a feature film.
A film adaptation of Drive was first announced in early 2008, with Neil Marshall set to direct what was then being described as "an L.A.-set action mystery" that would be a starring vehicle for Hugh Jackman. Universal Studios, which had tried to make a film version for some time, was also on board. By February 2010, Marshall and Jackman were no longer attached to the project.
Producer Marc E. Platt contacted actor Ryan Gosling about Drive early on. Platt explained: "I have this list that I've created of very talented individuals whose work inspire me – writers, directors, actors whom I have to work with before I go onto another career or do something else with my life." Near the top of Platt's list was Gosling, who, despite having starred in several films of diverse genres, had never starred in anything like Drive. He had always been interested in doing an action-oriented project. Gosling claimed that he was simply put off from the genre, believing that the action films of today focused more on stunts instead of characters. Despite this, Platt heard back from the actor around 48 hours later. Gosling has stated that his strong attraction to the plot led him to take on the leading role of the unnamed driver, saying that he was drawn to the "very strong character" at its core, as well as the "powerful" romance.
In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Gosling was asked what had attracted him to the film, and whether he had read the script at the time Jackman and director Neil Marshall were attached to it. He replied:
I think that might be the original one I read. I read a few drafts. I read one as well where he wasn't a stunt driver at all, which was a newer draft – maybe that's the one Hugh Jackman had; I'm not sure exactly. Basically when I read it, in trying to figure out who would do something like this, 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's lost in the mythology of Hollywood and he's become an amalgamation of all the characters that he admires.
When Ryan Gosling signed on for the leading role, he was allowed to choose the director, a first in his career. A fan of his work, the actor chose the Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. "It had to be [him]. There was no other choice."
When Refn read the first screenplay for Drive, he was more intrigued by the concept of a man having a split personality, being a stuntman by day and a getaway driver at night, than the story itself. Believing that the director might be intimidated by the script as it was unlike anything he had done before, Gosling had concerns about Refn's desire to participate. Refn took on the project without hesitation.
When casting roles in his films, Refn does not watch casting tapes or have his actors audition for him. He meets with them and casts them on the spot if he feels they're right. Drive was the first film Carey Mulligan signed on to do after being nominated for an Academy Award for her role in An Education (2009), which was directed by another Danish filmmaker, Lone Scherfig. (Scherfig is a good friend of Refn and used to babysit him when he was a child). At the time of Mulligan's casting, Refn had not seen An Education, but his wife was a big fan of the film and Mulligan's performance, and she urged him to cast her. In the original script, the character was a Hispanic woman named Irina. The character was changed to Irene after Mulligan was cast, with Refn explaining that he "couldn’t find any actress that would click with [him] personally". While working on the film, Mulligan moved in with Refn, his wife and two daughters in their home in Los Angeles. Hossein Amini also lived with Refn's family for the duration of the film's shoot. Refn and Amini made significant changes to the original script during this time.
Bryan Cranston plays the role of Shannon. He was one of the first actors Refn looked to cast, as he was a fan of the TV series Breaking Bad. Knowing Cranston had other opportunities, Refn tried to interest him by asking how he would like to develop the role. After not hearing back, Refn called him, at the very same time that Cranston was writing on a piece of paper the pros and cons of doing Drive. Moved by Refn's interest, he accepted the part. Christina Hendricks plays the small role of Blanche. "Trying to work in a more reality arena for a character like that," Refn originally auditioned porn stars for Blanche. He was unable to find anyone with the necessary acting talent. After meeting with Hendricks, he decided to cast the actress, feeling her "powerhouse" persona would click with the character.
Albert Brooks plays the foul-mouthed, morose Bernie Rose. When Refn suggested him, Gosling agreed, but thought the actor would not be up for playing a character who is violent and sullen, or for appearing in a film that he did not work on himself. Brooks accepted the role to go against type, and because he loved that Bernie was not a cliché. "There are six people you could always get to play this kind of part, and I like that the director was thinking outside of the box. For me, it was an opportunity to act outside the box. I liked that this mobster had real style. Also, he doesn't get up in the morning thinking about killing people. He's sad about it. Upset about it. It's a case of, 'Look what you made me do.'"
Nino, a key villain, is portrayed by Ron Perlman, one of the last actors to join the cast. Regarding the casting of Perlman, Refn said, "The character of Nino was originally not particularly interesting, so I asked Ron why he wanted to be in my movie when he's done so many great films. When Perlman said, 'I always wanted to play a Jewish man who wants to be an Italian gangster', and I asked why, and he said, 'because that's what I am – a Jewish boy from New York', well, that automatically cemented it for me." Oscar Isaac portrays a Latino convict named Standard, who is married to Irene and is just released from prison a week after Irene meets The Driver. He found the role to be a bit unappealing and chose to turn the archetypal character into something more. He said of the role:
As soon as I sat down with Nicolas, he explained this universe and world of the story, so we made the character into someone interested in owning a restaurant, someone who made some wrong decisions in his life, ending up in a bad place. By making 'Standard' more specific and more interesting, we found that it made the story that more compelling.
The film was made on a production budget of about $15 million and shot in various parts of Los Angeles, California, beginning on September 25, 2010. Locations were picked by Refn while Gosling drove him around the city at night. At the director's request, Los Angeles was picked as the shooting location due to budget constraints. Refn moved into a plush Los Angeles home and insisted that the cast members and screenwriter Amini move in with him. They would work on the script and film all day, then watch films, edit or drive at night. Refn asked that the editing suite be placed in his home as well. With a shooting script of 81 pages, Refn and Gosling continued to trim down dialog during filming.
The opening chase scene, involving Gosling's character, was filmed primarily by Refn within the car's interior. In an interview, he revealed the idea for this scene was to emulate the feeling of a "diver in an ocean of sharks," never leaving the vehicle during a car chase so that the audience can see what's happening from the character's point of view. Tight on money and time, he shot the scene in two days. With two different set-ups prepared in the car, the director found it difficult to have mobility with the camera, so he would switch the camera to two additional set-ups nearby. As downtown Los Angeles had been rejuvenated, Refn avoided certain areas to maintain the novel's gloomy atmosphere, which was helped by the scene being shot at low-angles with minimal light.
One scene in the film that has no dialogue is the elevator sequence. Refn explained:
A scene like the elevator sequence in Drive, for instance, has no dialogue, just a series of stunning visuals and graphic imagery–that's a prime example of how the film conveys so many ideas and emotions through images rather than words.
Before he shot his own head-smashing scene, he spoke to Gaspar Noé and asked him how he had done a similar scene in his film Irréversible (2002). Crossing the line from romance to violence, the scene begins with the Driver and Irene kissing tenderly. What they share is really a goodbye kiss, as he then becomes a "werewolf," violently stomping the hit man's head in. Subsequently, Irene sees the Driver in a new light. Of this scene Refn said:
Every movie has to have a heart—a place where it defines itself—and in every movie I've made there's always a scene that does that. On Drive, it was hard for me to wrap my head around it. I realized I needed to show in one situation that driver is the hopelessly romantic knight, but he's also completely psychotic and is willing to use any kind of violence to protect innocence. But that scene was never written. As I was going along, it just kind of popped up.
In March 2012, Interiors, an online journal that is concerned with the relationship between architecture and film, released an issue that discussed how space is used in this scene. The issue highlights Refn's use of constricted space and his way of creating a balance between romance and violence.
Using the Arri Alexa camera, the film was shot digitally. According to executive producer David Lancaster, the film has abundant, evocative, intense images of Los Angeles that are not often seen. "From the little seen back streets of downtown LA to the dry arid outposts on the peaks of the desert landscape surrounding it, Siegel has re-imagined an LA all the way down to the rocky cliffs by the sea."
Car scenes were filmed with a "biscuit rig," a camera car rig developed for the film Seabiscuit (2003), which allowed stunt driver Robert Nagle to steer the car, freeing Gosling to concentrate on acting. Consistent with Refn's usual visual style, wide-angle lenses were used heavily by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who avoided hand-held camera work. Preferring to keep the film more "grounded" and authentic, he also avoided using of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Budget restrictions were also a factor in this decision. Although many stunt drivers are credited, Gosling did some stunts himself, after completing a stunt driving car crash course. During the production, Gosling re-built the 1973 Chevrolet Malibu used in the film, taking it apart and putting it back together. Filming concluded on November 12, 2010.
Beth Mickle was hired as the film's production designer on Gosling's recommendation; they had worked together on 2006's Half Nelson. Prior to filming, Mickle supervised a crew of 40, routinely working 16- to 18-hour days. This was her most expensive film to date, and Mickle felt freer since "there was another zero added to the budget," compared to that of Half Nelson. The crew built the Driver's apartment building, which included a hallway and elevator that linked his unit to Irene's. Mickle also built a strip club set and Bernie Rose's apartment in an abandoned building. Turning a "run-of-the-mill" Los Angeles auto body shop into a grandiose dealership was one of the most challenging tasks. Painting the walls an electric blue color, she brought in a showroom full of vintage cars.
While Drive is set in the present day, it carries a heavy 1980s atmosphere that is cautiously set from beginning to end and is underlined not only by the vehicles or music and clothes, but also by its architecture. The parts of the city seen in the Valley and by downtown Los Angeles are cheap stucco and mirrored glass, often leaving out more contemporary buildings. Drab background settings include the southern California commercial strip. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, whenever gleaming buildings are shown, it is because they are being seen from a distance. Refn shot those scenes from a helicopter at night in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles.
Andrew O'Hehir of Salon has called Drive a "classic Los Angeles heist-gone-wrong story," which, "isn’t trying to outdo Bullitt or get the next assignment in The Fast and the Furious franchise". O'Hehir also noted homages to "Roger Corman's B-movie aesthetic and the glossy Hollywood spectacles of Michael Mann". As a character study, Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times examined themes of "loyalty, loneliness and the dark impulses that rise up even when we try our hardest to suppress them". Reuters' Nick Vinocur noted a series of comic gore, resulting in "a bizarre concoction...reminiscent of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive...Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and [with] angst-laden love scenes that would not be out of place in a Scandinavian drama". Christopher Hawthorne, also from the Los Angeles Times, has compared it to the works of Walter Hill, John Carpenter, Nathanael West, J. G. Ballard, and Mike Davis. According to Refn, Drive is dedicated to filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and includes shades of Jodorowsky's existentialism.
Drive has been called a tough, hard-edged, neo-noir, art house feature, extremely violent and very stylish, with European art and grindhouse influences. According to Refn, Drive turns into a superhero film during the elevator scene when The Driver kills the villain. Drive also references 1970s and 1980s cult hits such as The Day of the Locust (1975) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). Other influences can be seen in the neon-bright opening credits and the retro song picks – "a mix of tension-ratcheting synthesizer tones and catchy club anthems that collectively give the film its consistent tone". Drive's title sequence is hot-pink, which was inspired by Risky Business (1983). Refn has also indicated that the film's romance was partly inspired by the films of writer-director John Hughes.
Refn's inspiration for Drive came partly from reading Grimms' Fairy Tales, and his goal was to make "a fairy tale that takes Los Angeles as the background," with The Driver as the hero. To play with the common theme of fairy tales, The Driver protects what is good while at the same time killing degenerate people in violent ways. Refn was also inspired by films such as Point Blank (1967), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), The Driver (1978) and Thief (1981). Jean-Pierre Melville's crime productions influenced the cinematography. Amini's script propensity imposes "a kind of sideways moral code," where even those who comply with it are almost never rewarded for their efforts, as seen when The Driver helps Standard with Irene and her son's best interests in mind. In their vehicles, the characters not only make escapes or commit murder, but try to find peace and search for romance.
The Driver has been compared to the Man With No Name, a character Clint Eastwood portrayed in the Sergio Leone western, because he almost never speaks, communicating mostly non-verbally. The Driver's meager dialogue is not designed to present him as tough, but to soften him. Refn chose to give The Driver very little dialogue and instead have him drive around listening to synth-pop music, taking control when it counts. Peter Debruge of Variety opined that what The Driver lacks in psychology, he makes up through action and stylish costuming. The Driver's wardrobe, in particular the satin jacket with the logo of a golden scorpion on the back, was inspired by the band KISS, and Kenneth Anger's 1964 experimental film Scorpio Rising. Refn sees the former as the character's armor, and the logo as a sign of protection. According to reviewer Peter Canavese, the jacket is a reference to the fable of the scorpion and the frog, mentioned in the film, which in turn evokes its use in the Orson Welles film Mr. Arkadin.
Refn chose Johnny Jewel of Desire and the Chromatics to score the film. He wanted electronic music and to have it be abstract, on occasion, so viewers can see things from the Driver's perspective. As Refn was going through mixer Jewel's catalog, he picked out "Under Your Spell" and "Tick of the Clock" because he thought of Drive being a fairy tale. During Drive's climax, "A Real Hero"'s keynote melody, about becoming "a real human being, and a real hero", refrains because that is when the Driver displays both those characteristics. At first, Jewel worried that "Under Your Spell" might be too literal, but soon realized it is used in Drive "in the exact same way that I was feeling it when I wrote it. He definitely got the nuance of the song, and understood what it was supposed to mean, and he wanted to give that emotion to the viewer, that same feeling."
Thinking of music in terms of basic elements, Jewel would tell the director that for certain scenes, it should not have bass since, as an earth tone, it is usually used for a more emotional or ominous part. Jewel thought the music should be in the upper register and relaxing for the "dreamlike" scene. To help himself with the music composition process, and to conjure up melodies, the producer would highlight many phrases from the novel, then print those words in large font, and hung them on his walls or draw pictures during viewings of Drive.
Although Jewel's music was used in the score, at the last minute the studio hired composer Cliff Martinez to imitate the style and feel of Jewel's bands Chromatics and Glass Candy. Refn him a sampling of songs he liked and asked Martinez to emulate the sound, resulting in "a kind of retro, 80ish, synthesizer europop". Editor Mat Newman suggested Drive's opening credits song: "Nightcall" by French electronic musician Kavinsky. Most of its ethereal electronic-pop score was composed by Martinez. Refn was a particular fan of his ambient music on the Sex, Lies, and Videotape soundtrack. The score contains tracks with vintage keyboards and bluntly descriptive titles.
Jewel reworked his unused soundtrack for the film into Themes for an Imaginary Film, the debut album by his side-project Symmetry.
A re-scored soundtrack for the film was produced for the BBC by Zane Lowe for its television broadcast in October 2014. The soundtrack included original music from Chvrches, Banks, Bastille, Eric Prydz, SBTRKT, Bring Me the Horizon, The 1975 and Laura Mvula.
Prior to beginning principal photography, Refn went to the 2010 Cannes Film Festival to sell the rights to Drive and released promotional posters for the film. In November 2010, FilmDistrict acquired North American distribution rights. The owners were so eager to get their hands on Drive, they started negotiating to buy it before seeing any footage, believing it could appeal to people who enjoy a genre movie, as well as the arthouse crowd. The film had a release date of September 16, 2011, in the United States.
The film premiered on May 20, in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. At its first showing to the media, the film received abundant praise, and garnered "some of the best responses of the festival," but Xan Brooks of The Guardian, who gave it a positive review, said it "can't win, won't win" Cannes's top prize. Brooks explained that "[I]t's too self-consciously retro, too much a series of cool, blank surfaces as opposed to a rounded, textured drama," but said that it was his "guilty pleasure" of the 2011 competition, labeling it an enjoyable affair. He said, "Over the past 10 days we've witnessed great art and potent social commentary; the birth of the cosmos and the end of the world. Turns out what we really wanted all along was a scene in which a man gets his head stomped in a lift. They welcome it in like a long-lost relation." The film was greeted with hoots and howls of joy from the media, with viewers cheering on some of the scenes featuring extreme violence. Drive also received a 15-minute standing ovation from the crowd. The festival named Refn best director for Drive.
Drive was also screened at the Los Angeles Times' Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) on June 20 at its gala screenings program. It was among more than 200 feature films, short projects, and music videos, from more than 30 countries, to be shown during the festival. After Red Dog's release date was pushed up by several days, Drive replaced it as the Melbourne International Film Festival's closing night film. The film was also screened during FilmDistrict's studio panel presentation at the San Diego Comic-Con function. A secret screening for Drive was held at London's Empire Big Screen during the middle of August. In September, Drive screened as a special presentation during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, alongside another film starring Gosling, The Ides of March.
Drive was released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 30, 2012. During the first week of its release in North America, it was the number two bestselling DVD with 278,940 units sold, and the bestselling Blu-ray disc with 213,722 units sold. It was re-released on a Blu-ray/DVD and Digital Copy combo Mondo x SteelBook on December 2, 2014, as a proof of concept title for an upcoming series of collaborative releases between Justin Ishmael (Mondo) and Nick Coughlan (SteelBook) utilizing artwork by Tyler Stout.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports an approval rating of 92% based on 239 reviews, with an average rating of 8.3/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "With its hyper-stylized blend of violence, music, and striking imagery, Drive represents a fully realized vision of arthouse action." Metacritic, another review aggregator, gave it a score of 78 out of 100, based on 43 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". It was one of the highest-ranked, and most-featured, films on critics' year-end top 10 lists. It ranked as fourth best film of the year, behind The Tree of Life, The Artist, and Melancholia on Metacritic's tally of top 10 lists. On Movie City News' tally it ranked third, behind The Tree of Life and The Descendants.
The writers for the film magazine Empire listed Drive as their number one film of 2011. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film 4 out of 4 stars, declaring that Drive was "a brilliant piece of nasty business," and that "Refn is a virtuoso, blending tough and tender with such uncanny skill that he deservedly won the Best Director prize at Cannes." Travers also said, "Prepare to be blown away by Albert Brooks. Brooks' performance, veined with dark humor and chilling menace (watch him with a blade), deserves to have Oscar calling." The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern also praised Brooks's performance, calling his villainous performance "sensational." James Rocchi of The Playlist gave the film an A letter grade, and wrote that "Drive works as a great demonstration of how, when there's true talent behind the camera, entertainment and art are not enemies but allies." Rocchi placed Drive as his number one film of 2011.
Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek complimented the film's action and wrote that it "defies all the current trends in mainstream action filmmaking. The driving sequences are shot and edited with a surgeon's clarity and precision. Refn doesn't chop up the action to fool us into thinking it's more exciting than it is." She also admired Refn's skill in handling the film's violence, and the understated romance between Gosling and Mulligan. Her score for the film is 9.5/10. Drive was Roger Ebert's seventh best film of 2011. In praising the film, he wrote, "Here is a movie with respect for writing, acting, and craft. It has respect for knowledgeable moviegoers." Like Zacharek, Ebert admired the film's action sequences, which were practically made and did not rely on CGI effects.
In a negative review by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, he wrote that Drive's violence was far too graphic, and it ultimately was a detriment to the film. Referring to the violence, he said, "In grabbing our attention, he diverts it from what matters. The horror lingers and seeps; the feelings are sponged away." Michael Philips of the Chicago Tribune felt similarly, and while he enjoyed the film early on, Drive became "one garishly sadistic set piece after another". As well, Phillips thought the film relied too much on "stylistic preening" and did not have enough substance. In 2014, The Huffington Post included Drive on its list of 8 Movies From The Last 15 Years That Are Super Overrated. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film a score of C−; this was attributed to audiences feeling tricked, having expected more driving and more action based on the marketing. It was picked as the best film of the year by: Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times, James Rocchi of BoxOffice, Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out (New York), Neil Miller of Film School Rejects, Mark Russell of The Oregonian, and a staff critic from Empire magazine.
Drive grossed $78.1 million worldwide, making more than five times its $15 million budget. In North America, the film grossed a total of $35.1 million. The film opened in North America earning $11.3 million on the weekend of September 16, 2011, and played at 2,866 theaters. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "C–" on an A+ to F scale. It was one of four wide releases that opened that weekend, and came in second. The other three new releases included the re-release of The Lion King on 3D, which was the top film, along with the Straw Dogs remake and the romantic comedy I Don't Know How She Does It. The film closed its North American theatrical run on February 9, 2012.
In the international marketplace, Drive grossed $41.1 million. The film had its highest-grossing box office in France, where it earned a total of €10.3 million ($13.3 million). It opened in France on the weekend of October 5, 2011, at 246 theaters, eventually expanding to 360. The film opened in second place and had the highest per-screen theater gross for the weekend €10,722 ($13,746). Its second-highest overseas gross came in the United Kingdom, where it earned a total of £3.1 million ($4.6 million). Drive opened in the U.K. on September 27, 2011, at 176 theaters, eventually expanding to 190. The film opened in Australia on October 27, 2011, and grossed a total of $2.3 million in the country.
Drive was nominated for four British Academy Film Awards, which included Best Film, Best Direction, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Carey Mulligan), and Best Editing. It was one of the most-nominated films by critics' groups in 2011. Albert Brooks had the most critics' groups nominations. Nicholas Refn won the Best Director Award at the 64th Cannes Film Festival. The film also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Editing.
Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) was released in CD format to stores on September 27, 2011, by Lakeshore Records, and owned by Cutting Edge Film Scores. Prior to that, owing to viral reviews such as those found on social networking website Twitter, the soundtrack sold well on iTunes, climbing as high as number four on the sales charts. The album was released on vinyl in June 2012, by Mondo. The nineteen-track album has amassed positive reviews. James Verniere of the Boston Herald graded it an A, stating, "The cool crowd isn't just watching Drive; they're listening to it, too... The Drive soundtrack is such an integral part of the experience of the film, once you see it, you can't imagine the film without it." AllMusic reviewer James Christopher Monger selected opening track "Nightcall", "I Drive", "Hammer" and "Bride of Deluxe" as soundtrack's highlights. Mayer Nissim of Digital Spy gave it a four out of five star rating, finding it as important as the film itself. She stated the album, beginning with non-Martinez songs instead of mixing it up for a more enjoyable listening experience, cost it a star. In September 2016, Lakeshore and Invada Records released a fifth anniversary special edition pressing of the soundtrack, featuring new liner notes and artwork. That same month, Johnny Jewel, College, Electric Youth, and Cliff Martinez discussed the impact of the soundtrack and film on their lives and contemporary music culture. Jewel told Vehlinggo that Drive's "blend of sonic and visual nostalgia with a contemporary spin is always deadly." The soundtrack was listed on Spin magazine's list of 40 Movie Soundtracks That Changed Alternative Music.