There are going spoilers here for Drive, but if you have not watched Walter Hill’s The Driver, you may want to start here . If anything else, that is an excellent movie.
When I watch movies, I don’t have a good sense of understanding themes, contexts, allegories, and cinematic styles, but I tend to focus on what I feel when I see the film the first time around. Analyzing things after repeated viewings is important, but I’ve always considered the immediate, chemical impressions to be the truest effect of the film on the viewer. Without a doubt, I’d personally have to say that Drive is one of the most surreal films I’ve seen.
Drive is Déjà Vu — a misplaced sense of the familiar. It is like looking at the childhood room you grew up in, but a different color. With Kavinsky blaring and the colors bleeding into each other in an ethereally melting ’80s dreamscape, you begin to realize that Drive isn’t an action movie, it’s a never-ending carnival ride, and we are riding in the passenger’s seat. I’d felt this before somewhere, but when?
I think part of what invokes sense of the familiar is Refn’s use of slow-motion. Refn takes that cinematic element and magnifies it with an electron microscope until it becomes nearly too much. It isn’t the kind of slow-motion where we get to see the action bits in higher-resolution, but the slow-motion where we want what’s happening in front of us to last forever.
Much of the time I was watching the movie, I was asking myself, “Is The Driver a hero or not?” Every film antihero has done the same kind of “no talk, all business, don’t look back” delivery, but there is something eerily different about The Driver’s gaze, as if he is always staring at something a mile past you. Refn’s inspiration for the character came during a car ride he had with Gosling when REO Speedwagon came on the radio — he was someone whose only way to feel was by driving at night listening to pop music. Is the driver… a psychopath? This dude seems sort of loony; does he think he’s in some sort of Hollywood film? Who talks like that. Only a weirdo who has no concept of regular social interaction acts like that. Drive’s reception was polarized. People either loved it or hated it. Funny enough, it was for the same reasons.
The question of whether what we are watching is actually occurring or not arises several times in the film, specifically during the scene when Standard is back home from prison at his welcome home party, where the music explicitly transitions from the movie’s soundtrack to the welcome home party’s music, blaring from the apartment. But I guess the real question is, what is The Driver?
Our very own Nachlasse and FrugalStoic have pointed out the juxtaposition between the roles depicted by our main character. One is The Mechanic, a softspoken man who carries his neighbors grocery bags and takes her and her son out for a drive in the L.A. River. The other is The Driver, who stomps a hitman’s head in 17 times. As Refn notes, our character is a werewolf. The odd one is the third role where we watch our driver play a stuntman. (Who is then played in real life by Gosling. I thought this bit was Refn poking fun at rigid roles.) The focus though, is on the Driver. The issue of who Gosling’s character actually is may be a muddled one, but the love story isn’t. Our love story is the classic kind. It is 2 dimensional and uncomplex, parsed down to unfiltered moments of stillness. The answer as to who The Driver is lies in the ending when he drives off after killing the bad guys, leaving Irene and her son to protect them. For Irene and her son, he stays as The Mechanic, but for us, the audience who gets to see him leave and drive away never to be seen again but to live for more adventures, he is and forever will be The Driver.
Many people didn’t like Drive because they expected an action film and it didn’t deliver. That’s because it isn’t an action film, it’s a surreal film about action films, a point that seemed to be lost. Refn’s use of slow-motion makes it into a replay button. He took the still, quiet moments of action movies and played them over and over again, repeatedly, until they began to take a distorted form. Drive is the warped, raw form of these action films.
Drive is a direct acknowledgement of Walter Hill’s 1978 classic The Driver, which is the very definition of cool. It is the predecessor; also about a nameless, story-less driver who executes heist getaways with uncanny precision. And he never, ever makes a mistake. Drive’s style and and Gosling’s performance are homages to O’Neal’s character. This is immediately apparent in each films’ initial chase scene, where both drivers demonstrate what it is to do work well done by making up for the ineptness of the two robbers with calm reserve and a flawless getaway through the hazy lights of neon L.A. Refn’s Drive is the dream-like derivative of The Driver. The ending is the same too. We don’t know who this guy is, where he came from, or where he is going, but we just got a brief snapshot of something incredible. He will always be driving, kept in a paradoxical state of stationary motion — that’s what he does, that’s his nature.
That’s what this movie is. It’s a fantasy.
The other, more subtle homage made was to a broader notion, something explicitly portrayed by O’Neal’s character in The Driver: the era of cowboys.
There have been many interpretations made as to what the scorpion jacket actually means. I don’t think there is any actual meaning behind the icon — what’s important is that it is an icon, which is where I think my subconscious sense of the familiar lies. Drive is an amalgamation of hero movies and the cowboys of a time long gone. In our current age where truth and justice and doing the right thing is often a difficult, morally complicated concept in real life, the scorpion jacket is a tribute to a time when justice was a black and white concept. Before cynicism, sarcasm, and apathy became easy.* It is an emblem of emblems and a representation of a former paradigm. The jacket is brazen and colored in gold. There aren’t iconic symbols like that in movies anymore. There used to be power in that stuff, man. Karate Kid had power in that. It had the rising sun headband. It was what enabled Daniel Larusso to perfect the crane kick. Rocky’s American flag shorts gave him the strength to beat Ivan Drago in those inferiorly made Soviet shorts. And the scorpion’s place is perfect, right on the back — you don’t need to see the know who he is, what his story is, or where he’s going. It’s the last thing you see when he leaves, like a cowboy, for the next chapter in his life.
So, to answer my initial question which was probably already apparent when you saw the film, our character is a Hero in all genuine intent of the word, despite how dysfunctional he actually is. But there is no room for him in 2013′s consciousness. Instead, he is the kind of hero that belongs in the storybooks we read as children, the kind who did what was right, and the kind that then rode off into the sunset, returning for the next time a hero’s story was to be told.
Written to M83′s Sister Part II
* Before cynicism, sarcasm, and apathy became easy.
The two-dimensional characters, generic storyline, unrealistic silence, and Gosling’s over-the-top stares were done on purpose. I suspect this is why people hated (and loved) the movie. It doesn’t work in our times. Today, he is a neurotic, psychopathic character. Only some dude with asperger’s thinks life works this way. But that was what appealed to people 30 years ago when they were captivated by the action films of the times. Two-dimensional protagonists with 2-D moral problems. Eastwood. Van Damme. Stallone. Schwarzenegger. Their characters defined entire generations. They weren’t odd because those were different times. Today’s action films (read: Superhero films) don’t even require people to suspend disbelief before walking into movie theaters anymore because it’s already assumed that they’ve gone over that hill. Of course, this is why Gosling’s character belongs in storybooks, because life isn’t black and white.
PS – The trailers that made it look like an action movie were genius.
Credits for The Driver image to goodbyelikeabullet