BY: Eric Mulder
After watching Drive for the first time, I was left a little underwhelmed. The film had gotten an enormous amount of buzz from both Critics and Audiences, yet, I wasn't all that impressed by it. I thought that it was a good, but not great film, and I chalked up my luke-warm appreciation of the film to it being too overhyped. Several months later, I watched it a second time. After my second viewing, my opinion pulled a complete 180. Well, actually more of a 90 degree turn considering I liked it OK the first time around. After the second viewing, I was completely blown away. There is so much going on in this film that I either missed the first time around, or didn't care to explore. With this essay, I will lightly explore certain aspects and aesthetics contained in the film, as well as discuss three main interpretations of Ryan Gosling's character "The Driver."
Drive came out in 2011 and is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. It is based off a novel of the same name written by James Sallis and published in 2005. Refn, who also directed Bronson(2008) and the Pusher trilogy, is an up-and-coming director that people seem to be talking more and more about but by no means is he an amateur. He's been directing since the mid 1990's and most of his work has been met with Universal critical acclaim. When watching Drive, if you see something that you think looks out of place, or feel that certain aspects of the film miss their mark, chances are that Refn did that on purpose. His body of work should be taken seriously as should Drive.
The film opens with our anonymous driver protagonist driving a getaway car for a couple small time thieves. After narrowly outrunning police cars and a chopper, our hero, "the Driver," leisurely drives off in his 1973 Chevelle. The opening title sequence sets a tone for the rest of the film in terms of Style and Aesthetics. A song called "Nightcall" accompanies this sequence. "Nightcall" and some of the other songs on the soundtrack have a very 80's feel to them. There's a lot of 80's pop, 80's Euro-pop, and electronic-pop synthesizer sounds in some of the tracks. The font for the Title Sequence text is modeled after the font from Risky Business (1983). If you compare the Drive text with the Risky Business text, you will see that they are a very similar color and font style.
About the car itself, outside of the Fast and Furious franchise, there have been very few "Car" movies since the 80's. By "Car" movies, I mean Action films that feature cars prominently through chase or race sequences. Not only have there not been many "car" movies since the 80's, there have been even fewer iconic or even memorable cars. Think of what came out of the 80's; The Delorean, The Ghostbuster's car, the Plymouth fromChristine(1983), the Winnebago from Spaceballs(1987),The red Ferrari from Ferris Bueller's Day Off(1986), The Griswald Station Wagon and the mystery beauty's Ferrari, the old Buick from Rain Man(1988), the Ford Falcon in Mad Max(1980), Uncle Buck's old Mercury Marquis, The Bluesmobile, the Batmobile from Tim Burton's Batman(1989), and even Mr. Miyagi gave little Danny a pretty sweet whip in The Karate Kid(1984). Cannonball Run 1 and 2(1981, 1984) were kinda big in the 80's too and they had numerous memorable vehicles. Even TV followed suit. Knight Rider, Magnum P.I., Miami Vice, The A-Team, they all had memorable vehicles. After the 80's, there haven't been too many iconic vehicles. I would say the Tumbler from the Dark Knight Trilogy(2005-2013) is a recent one, along with maybe Denzel Washington's Monte Carlo in Training Day(2001), Eleanor from Gone in 60 Seconds(2000) which is a remake anyway….how about Harry's '84 Sheepdog from Dumb and Dumber(1994)? Bottom line is that "Car" movies and cars in movies in general was a bigger deal in the 80's and 70's than it is today. The reason for this trip down movie-car memory lane is because Drive IS a "Car" movie from the 70's and 80's in some ways. There isn't necessarily a whole lot of "Driving" in Drive, but it shares many characteristics with the classic "Car" films of yesteryear. Drive has real cars crashing into real cars. CGI was avoided in filming because of budget constraints and the fact that it wouldn't have fit well aesthetically with the film. Stunt drivers were used for the extreme sequences but Gosling also performed many of his own stunts and also took apart and put his '73 Chevelle back together during production. Drive is a "Car" film in some aspects. Couple that with the 80's music and 80's font, and you get a film that is one half Retro, Stylish, Exploitative, Car Action film, and one half Art House film. Albert Brooks' character actually sums up what the film is perfectly in one scene when he says "I produced films in the 80's. Kinda like Action films, sexy stuff. One critic called them European…I thought they were shit." I can't think of a better way of describing Drive. There were many critics that considered Drive to be European-Art-House-influenced. The "I thought they were shit" line is most likely Refn poking fun at himself as well as the critics.
Aside from the Style, Action, and 80's nostalgia, this film is also an Art-House film. What makes a film an "Art-House film?" Well, there's a lot of different/debatable criteria that is considered, but what sets Drive apart from other action films is the sub-textual themes and symbolisms. Wondering why the Driver has a Scorpion on the back of his jacket? Because Drive is a modern-day take on one of the oldest Fables in the world. Drive is a visual re-creation of a fable called "The Scorpion and the Frog."
Wikipedia explains the Fable as such: "The Scorpion and the Frog is a fable about a scorpion asking a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, the frog would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion explains that this is simply its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the view that the behaviour of some creatures, or of some people, is irrepressible, no matter how they are treated and no matter what the consequences." So how can we apply this to Drive? There are many different interpretations and ways of comparing the two stories so there isn't really a wrong answer. Most people would argue that The Driver (played by Ryan Gosling) is the frog and the criminals are the scorpion(s). Gosling moonlights as a getaway driver and because of that, he is constantly in danger much like the Frog. Gosling often wears that jacket with a huge scorpion conveniently located on his BACK. In the films opening chase, it appears that the Driver may be getting away easier than you thought until the police helicopter spots him. Where does the helicopter spot him? On the middle of the bridge over a giant body of water. When his car is spotted, its the metaphorical equivalent of being stung and doomed to a dark fate. You've all watched COPS before. Does anyone ever outrun a helicopter? The answer is NO, but what happens to the Driver? He miraculously manages to get away. This is very contradictory to the fable because he gets away but just ignore that for now and we'll come back to it later. Shortly after Standard Gabriel(Irene's husband) is killed during the robbery and after the subsequent car-chase, The Driver is seen at a pay phone, but the shot begins with an extreme close-up of the Scorpion on the back of his jacket. This can be viewed as "the real sting" from the scorpion because the botched robbery is truly what seals The Driver's fate, because immediately following the robbery, the mob tries to kill The Driver at every turn. There is also a close-up shot of the Scorpion right after the fight in the elevator. Towards the end of the film when The Driver calls Bernie to set up the meeting, Gosling says, "Remember that story about the Scorpion and the frog? Your friend Nino didn't make it across the river." After the sit-down, Bernie stabs The Driver in the side with a knife. This is the most blatant example of The Driver being "stung," and yet, The Driver lives.
Drive is unique for many reasons, but the Driver himself is what I find most intriguing. If you think of Drive as just a modern retelling of the fable then maybe he's the frog, but some kind of super-frog that breaks the mold because The Driver does not die at the end of the film. Maybe he was a Frog that turned into a Scorpion or even a Scorpion all along. When The Driver first meets Bernie, The Driver is hesitant to shake his hand saying "My hands are a little dirty" to which Bernie replies, "So are mine." Even-so, The Driver's story does not have to match up word for word with the fable basically because it doesn't have to. Drive is an original story (based off of a novel) that can be viewed as a modern-day retelling of the fable because the main message is still fully-intact. Looking deeper into The Driver's character, there are almost endless possibilities of who he is or represents, but I can see three primary interpretations of who this character really is. I like to interpret The Driver as being either The Frog from the fable, a modern Knight in shining armor, a Superhero, or even more likely, a combination of these three and possibly others.
The Driver can be interpreted as a Knight in shining armor in a variety of ways. The Driver's car can be viewed as The Knight's horse/steed, racing/galloping through the countryside/Los Angeles. Irene can be viewed as the "Damsel in distress" or a Princess that needs to be saved/rescued. The Driver can be seen looking out a window several times during the film as if he's keeping an eye on something or looking out for trouble. This is not a coincidence. A classic Knight from the Middle Ages might do the same except he would be looking out of a watchtower. In fact, just under 20 minutes into the film (somewhere around the 19:50 mark), The Driver can be seen staring out some windows overlooking the city. The way the shot is framed marks a striking resemblance to a Knight looking out of a Castle Watchtower. The biggest actual physical manifestation of a Knight I saw in Drive came in the car rollover stunt The Driver performs during the filming of an unknown TV show or movie. When The Driver first appears on scene, he can be seen walking with a cup of coffee wearing a policeman's uniform. The Driver's right hand is holding his nightstick (NIGHT-stick....just realized that's kind of a pun), while his left hand is holding the coffee. Looking at it again, it looks very similar to a Knight with one hand on his sword and the other holding a shield. The Driver is holding his coffee in front of his body and about half-way up his torso. The way the shot is framed, his policeman's badge(which is in the shape of a shield of course) can be seen just above his left arm and makes a striking resemblance to a Knight holding up a shield. The Driver is a stunt driver so having him wear a nightstick makes no sense because you would not be able to see it on camera (because he's driving a car) and it would only get in the way. I believe this was a conscious decision from Refn to add the nightstick to the shot so that he more resembled a knight or hero of some kind, which brings me to the Superhero interpretation. The Driver can be viewed as a Superhero simply because the audience already views The Driver as a hero, and his mastery of driving cars can be viewed as his "superpower." In the world that the film creates, there is no one better at driving cars then Mr. Gosling. Brian Cranston's character describes The Driver's skill set as unlike anything he's ever seen. Bernie asks him "What do you have that all the other big race teams don't?" To which Cranston replies, "I got the Driver." It is also worth noting that The Driver is never caught or hurt driving a car in the film. Besides superpowers, what else do Superhero's usually have? How about a costume or even a mask? Well, The Driver has both as his Scorpion jacket can be viewed as his costume, and there are two instances when The Driver wears a mask. He wears a mask during the stunt car scene because he's "doubling for the lead actor" and needs to look similar on camera. The second time he wears it, he puts it on outside of Nino's followed by him walking to the door and peering inside.
Researching this film, this particular scene was the biggest WTF moment from viewers as there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why he puts it on there in the parking lot or even risk being seen right outside the FRONT DOOR. He avoids being seen and ends up walking away until he is seen shortly after (still wearing the mask) and runs Nino off the road and kills him by drowning him in the ocean (very similar to the Scorpion's death). I read a lot of people's questions containing something along the lines of why the hell did he put on the mask, walk over to the door, look around for a little bit, then leave. What is the purpose of this scene? Is it a mistake that should have been edited out? Besides "The Driver" Gosling's character is also called "kid" by some of the other characters and I think this scene could be Refn showing the character's physical transformation of "The Kid" into "The Driver." There is also one song in the film that is played twice called "A Real Hero." We first hear it when The Driver takes Irene and her son on a joyride, and then again at the very end when The Driver is sitting in his driver seat after being stabbed. He is staring ahead motionless, emotionless, and it is not immediately know if he is actually still alive until he finally blinks as "A Real Hero" suddenly fades in. Superhero or not, The Driver is "A Real Hero." He is always trying to do what's right and fights to keep others safe. He doesn't smoke or drink, is very soft-spoken, and seems to always protect innocence and good people. Every Superhero needs a Villain right? While I know I don't need to point out that Bernie (played by Albert Brooks) is the bad guy, it isn't abundantly clear how bad he is until the final Act of the film. In fact, Bernie backs The Driver and invests in their race team, however, there is an early clue that Bernie is the true villain. After Bernie's third scene in the film (Where he asks The Driver if he thinks he'll be ready for the race) The Driver is seen sitting next to little Benicio on the couch watching television and appear to be watching cartoons although the TV screen is not shown. Bare in mind, this is the first line of dialogue spoken since Bernie was just speaking with the Driver. The Driver says "Is he a bad guy?" Benicio replies "Yeah." The Driver asks "How can you tell? Benicio says simply "He's a shark." Bernie is the head of an unknown, mob-like criminal organization. One of his primary illegal incomes, is Loan Sharking. Loan sharking is what got Standard Gabriel into trouble with Bernie, and to an even greater extent, Nino's men(Nino works for Bernie). While The Driver and little Benicio are most likely discussing the cartoon their watching, Refn is also telling us who the bad guy/shark is in the film.
Nicolas Winding Refn seems to tell us more in Drive when little or nothing is said and this notion is personified by The Driver himself. The Driver is very soft-spoken the entire film. He states simply over the phone to criminals that he only waits five minutes, he doesn't join in on the heists, "I don't carry a gun….I Drive." This notion of "Less is More" can best be explained with the Elevator scene.
That scene is not only sex and violence personified, but we also learn a lot about the Driver without him ever saying a word. There is not one bit of dialogue in the scene. It begins with The Driver pulling Irene into the corner for a kiss, and ends with him stomping a man's brains into mush. When asked about the 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 the 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." (Notice how he said "knight")
Drive is a film that demands your full attention if you want to absorb all it has to offer. However, if you simply want to watch it for the Action, Style, or maybe you have a big crush on Mr. Gosling, Drive delivers on those aspects as well. Some films come out and people say, "That film is style over substance" or vice versa. Drive has enormous but equal levels of both and I think Refn cemented his status as visionary and contemporary Auteur.