Story Pile: Drive

Drive is a 2011 movie from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Defining what Drive is is a little bit tricky, because while it has the elements of a heist movie or a crime drama or something in the vein of a mood piece it’s sort of none of these things at the same time. Described by some as neo-noir and by others as sunset noir, Drive is a brooding, slow-boil movie about being three quarters of the way home and knowing that something terrible is coming with you.

Drive follows the story of an unnamed stunt driver played by Ryan Gosling, who works with Bryan Cranston’s Shannon, a mechanic and fixer. The Driver offers a service, told in the calm, cool opening monologue; provided you set things up properly, and meet with the driver at the time you agreed upon, he guarantees a getaway.

This intoxicating fantasy – of being the Best There Is (and therefore okay with being a bit weird), of being a specialist in the Not So Bad type of Extremely Cool Crime (I mean how often do you see people being killed in getaway chases), all come together in the opening sequence, before collapsing together into the real life of the driver.

The Driver is an impossibly cool character, from the outset. He wears a padded velvet white jacket with a gold scorpion on the back and doesn’t look like a dork, that’s how intense his aura of coolness is. The disaffected mannerisms, the lack of concern in his facial expression, the way he handles the tension of being pursued by the police – all of it elegantly demonstrates the exact persona of hypercool hyperreal noir superprotagonist.

And then we meet his real life and we find out that it’s not an act he puts on.

The dude is like that all the time.

And it’s not because he’s cool, it’s because he has a hard time even having a conversation.

The issue of masks fascinates me with this story.

If you’re not big on faces or on popular actors, you might not be aware that Ryan Gosling was at the time this movie came out one of those Professionally Very Hot People in movies. Bryan Cranston was in the middle of Breaking Bad and Christina Hendricks was in the middle of Mad Men, so both were very much in the public consciousness as important character actors. The story uses the way we perceive famous people in stories in a particular way, telegraphed with an early scene showing the way we perceive famous people in action.

Every single character in this story as perceived, is wearing a mask. This mask, this question of who I really am and who I am presenting are at odds with one another; The Driver projects being pretty functional, if a bit weird; Irene can’t simply tell the Driver how she feels about him, because that would involve letting slip her own mask. Standard can’t bring himself to show Irene what’s really been going on in his life, the mobsters project strength to cover feelings of inadequacy –

And heck, there’s even a major character who you’re hoping will turn out to be awful, and isn’t, and that is itself a kind of use of the mask. The character is an archetype, and then defies that archetype, to the frustration of the plot.

Without going into spoilers, that is the central, recurring problem of this series: People project who they want to be, when who they are has information that could prevent a problem, if they could explain it. If they could admit their problems, this movie could be happier, people could be happier – but that would involve slipping the mask. And nobody’s doing that when anyone else is doing that.

There are a lot of fantasies at work in Drive and the story does an excellent job of letting you feel that fantasy while still also contrasting it with consequence. The character of the Driver is a big one for me.

The Driver has a hard time associating with and talking to people; there are emotional barriers or maybe something else that keep him from being able to establish himself as a whole person in his society. What people see as a cool, collected affect is no such thing – not a suit he puts on to protect himself, but how he functions, all the time. At the same time, the Driver also lives in a world which is full of violence and complex problems, which he always finds a way to boil down into simple solutions: find a way that driving real well will solve this problem. Sometimes, that solution comes at the behest of grotesque violence, and that the Driver doesn’t seem to flinch from that shows us more of who he is – and the world reacts to that person.

The Driver is like Jacket from Hotline Miami – a character whose mental state is a mystery to the people around him but who always operates on an internal, logical consistancy, and whose outbursts of action are surprising but not nonsensical. A person with a very limited skillset who nonetheless is shown to have things they care for, and a willingness to make that skillset applicable for everything.

Drive as a movie is definitely a bummer: the ending is ambiguous and for all that I talk about masks, the reason they’re interesting is because this is a movie where a lot of people die despite their seeming importance, and the ways they die are surprising to what you might expect. The movie is short on sexual violence, or even on excessive sexuality in general, and while a child is threatened there isn’t overt signs of child abuse.


The header image for this post, rather than coming from official art, is fanart by Mike Horowitz.

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