In Drive, an Anti-Hero’s Long, Winding, and Violent Road

Director Nicholas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling at the premiere of Drive in June 2011. (Source: Kevin Winter/Getty Images North America.)

“I don’t sit in while you run it down. I don’t carry a gun. I drive.”

Drive is a movie of strict boundaries. The protagonist is a Hollywood stuntman / criminal getaway specialist credited only as “Driver.” He speaks in staccato bursts. He communicates mostly to set limits to his interactions with others, such as the petty criminals to whom he disdainfully lends his expertise.

His obligations are fleeting— a five-minute window where “anything happens, and I’m yours.” A tick of the clock either side of those five minutes: “you’re on your own.” Each dictation of terms ends with a rhetorical “do you understand?” Driver doesn’t want an answer, the question is purely to reinforce the limits of his engagement with his environment.

This neon-lit nighttime Los Angeles, beautifully framed by director Nicholas Winding Refn, is viewed from the margins by Driver. In the James Sallis novella that provides the source material, we are told that Driver “existed a step or two to one side of the common world, largely out of sight, a shadow, all but invisible.” He prizes anonymity, taking short-term leases on nondescript apartments, forming no ties, collecting no baggage, ready to leave on a moment’s notice.

But chance intervenes, and he falls in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene and her son Benicio. Driver is no longer setting the terms of his engagement with the world.

When Irene’s husband, Standard Gabriel, comes home from prison (“where’s the deluxe version?” Irene had asked him when they met), Driver is forced into situations he cannot control. The crooks Standard is entangled with are heavier-hitters than the dessicated wannabes Driver usually preys upon. He is set on a collision course with Albert Brook’s quietly menacing Bernie Rose, and Ron Perlman’s petulant, profane, Nino.

All is propelled by the strange alchemy of the soundtrack. The anthem “A Real Hero” captures the soul of the story with its double-edged refrain “a real human being, and a real hero.” Kavinsky’s “Night Call” sets the nocturnal tone; the Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock” accents the precision of Driver’s craft; the glorious torch-song “Oh My Love” is deeply moving in context.

Heroic archetypes are skillfully deployed: The man with no name, the cowboy who rides into town to solve problems then rides off into the sunset, the road-warrior of the Mad Max series. But this is an anti-hero tale at its dark heart. Driver is a violent man and the world in which he operates is brutally Darwinian.

Two scenes: In the first, Driver carries Benicio down a corridor while Irene walks two steps behind. Time slows and Irene is in love with this surrogate father for her son. In the second, Driver commits an act of violence so horrifying and visceral that, when he turns back to face Irene, he appears to her shrunken, sweating, hideous. A real hero, a real human being.

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