Nicolas Winding Refn paints a neon mural of Los Angeles in his 2011 film “Drive,” placing eclectic characters with wildly differing backgrounds on the same screen and in the same places. Refn pokes and prods his cool and collected protagonist throughout this genre-bending film until the cracks in his composed exterior are too much to ignore, which eventually leads to a self-imposed banishment seen by Ryan Gosling’s character.
Within this beast of a movie, Nicolas Winding Refn does his best work while hiding an arthouse film in plain sight.
Refn continually asks subtle questions through this film’s main character, such as never revealing Gosling’s character name beyond an ominous moniker unveiled in the credits “The Driver,” thereby begging the question of who this driver even is and where he intends to go. For Gosling, he is a grease-soaked stunt man and car mechanic with racing aspirations but a gig moonlighting as a heist getaway driver.
This makes it easy to assume where “The Driver” will ultimately fail in this film, right? Wrong — it isn’t the illegalities of Gosling’s Driver that gets him into trouble. It’s the stark reality he lives in that is bereft of mercy and understanding for someone as afflicted as he is.
The Driver starts off this movie doing what he does best, putting pedal to the metal and adroitly dodging the law while helping his clients avoid capture after a robbery. This, of course, is done with ease by Gosling’s Driver. What is much more difficult for him is genuine human interaction and connecting with people on an emotionally vulnerable level. This is seen throughout the film with The Driver’s ill-fated turn as father figure to boy Benicio, and surrogate husband to already-married woman Irene. But this newfound dual role as adopted father and husband is not what ultimately does The Driver in, it’s his hope that he can hold onto these roles and hold a normal life.
That is the tragedy and the beauty of Refn’s “Drive.” A near emotionless character living on the wrong side of the law finds something that fulfills him more than what seems to be his role in life. He reaches out and finds a tangible reality where he can open up and love without fear of who is around the corner. The Driver sees a life where he would no longer be a cog in a revolving door of criminality, but the door shuts in his face as he is forced to defend the woman and child he loves from the same recesses of society he has seen and dealt with throughout his life.
Ultimately, The Driver realizes that he has no light in his future or opportunity to be happy or have a family. Gosling’s Driver made his bed and now must lay in it, and unlike many other characters in films, The Driver doesn’t do what we expect him to. He doesn’t implode, he doesn’t lose control and fall to shortsighted decisions. The Driver accepts that he must surrender his potential for love and happiness. He sacrifices himself to save his makeshift family from the life he has always lived and falsely thought he could leave.
It is in this aspect that, to me, categorizes this film most closely to the western genre. No, there aren’t tumbleweeds or cowboy boots, but it has the same type of stakes as a western. It has the same understanding of responsibility and willingness to sacrifice one’s life to stand up for what they believe. Like Shane clearing the valley of marauders in “Shane”or Gary Cooper’s willingness to die defending his ideals and the innocence of those he loves in “High Noon,” The Driver is willing to make the same sacrifices.
He knows that he will have to surrender everything in order to protect those he cares for as well as the possibilities they represent. While The Driver doesn’t physically die in “Drive,” he leaves his soul behind after he clears the town of threats to Benicio and Irene. He seals his own fate, but such is the cost of Gosling’s Driver finally reaching his destination. It is a barren place, unsuitable for most anyone. But The Driver has always resided there, he just hadn’t realized he had been driving in circles the whole time.
Grant Mitchell is a junior majoring in public relations. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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