It’s difficult to stomp someone to death in an elevator.
Near the end of the neo-noir film Drive (2011), when Ryan Gosling’s otherwise-nameless Driver slams his boot through the skull of an equally nameless goon sprawled on the floor of a lift, the violence clearly takes a lot of effort. He grips the handrails for more leverage, really puts his back into bringing that foot down. Blood sprays. Bone crunches like a mouthful of cereal:
No wonder it’s the scene that everybody remembers. One of the clips of it on YouTube has 3.3 million views (and climbing). That the Driver spends the seconds preceding the bloody stomping in lip-lock with Irene (Carey Mulligan), the object of his affections, just heightens the impact. It’s love and death in a little box.
It’s also the moment in the film when Irene (and perhaps the audience) realizes that the Driver is a total psychopath.
Or maybe ‘psychopath’ is the wrong word. In his stoicism and reliance on bone-crushing violence, the Driver has a lot in common with One Eye, the protagonist of the Medieval-era Valhalla Rising (2009), another film by Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. The Driver would be right at home in One Eye’s lawless wilderness, rendering people into meat left and right without consequence:
But the Driver was born a several centuries too late for that. Instead he’s in Los Angeles, or more precisely, a version of Los Angeles familiar to any fan of noir, full of shadows and streaked with neon. And within that context, he is an apex predator. The gangsters who stand against him have no chance. Later in the film, he stalks and kills Nino, an avuncular gangster played by Ron Perlman, with a slow relentlessness more reminiscent of a slasher-film monster than the ostensible hero. (If Nino were a sympathetic character, the circumstances of his death would be sad and terrifying.)
Noir has a long tradition of handsome killers with warped psyches. Sometimes they’re the anti-hero, as with Lou Ford, the murderous deputy sheriff who narrates Jim Thompson’s infamous novel The Killer Inside Me (adapted into film twice, in 1976 and 2010). More often, they’re the side heavy who steps onstage long enough to deliver a brutal beat-down or gruesomely inventive killing (the Cohen Brothers specialize in sprinkling their films with that type), often before being dispatched in turn.
In Drive, by contrast, the Driver is positioned much more as a protagonist as opposed to an anti-hero. He is a real human being and a real hero, as a bubbly pop song on the soundtrack repeatedly reminds us. Plus he’s fighting to save Irene and her little boy, and there’s no purer goal than that. The dichotomy between his motives and his savagery makes him the Great White Shark of the neo-noir world. In the end, no matter what his reasoning, or how intense his love, you’re just glad he isn’t coming after you.