...Refn makes it clear the Driver isn’t fit for the spotlight, nor does he want to be caught in it. Instead, he lurks in the shadows waiting for the scanning lights to vanish – a sign of his opportunity to assimilate with the rest of humanity. He is nothing if not a reluctant super hero decidedly unaware of his powers due to their quotidian function in his life.
by James Hansen
The opening scene of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (winner of Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival) provides a gut check for the stoic, passionately low key Driver (Ryan Gosling). With almost no dialogue, the Driver runs through an entire mission. Clenching his fist, he sits in his car. He waits patiently, listening to the slow crackle of his gloves, the gentle hum of his car, the reports of a police radio, and the excited voices calling the final quarter of a basketball radio broadcast. He negotiates the information gathered through this array of sounds, perfectly timing his escape from approaching squad cars and choppers with the outpouring of fans from the Staples Center.
The bright lights of downtown Los Angeles shoot around the screen, as do the flashing blues and reds of cop cars and the bright white beam of a helicopter’s spotlight. Despite these apparent dangers, the Driver’s world is understated, simple, and perhaps second rate – he waits on the end of a Clippers game, not the Lakers. He is in such control of his surroundings and the given situation, nothing comes as a surprise.
While the scene bristles with excitement, the Driver’s gaze is casual, if not practically bored. As the criminals shudder with fear in the back seat, the Driver remains defiantly neutral and unaffected by the perils of his situation. His knowledge of the darkness of the streets, as well as his day job as a Hollywood stunt man, grants him a sense of ease. He absorbs urban complexity, supposed danger, and potential failure and projects them as decidedly simple, non-threatening, and undoubted successes. With this early scene (not to mention the appropriately praised soundtrack which underlies the dated, otherworldly textures which permeate Drive’s swift running time), Refn makes it clear the Driver isn’t fit for the spotlight, nor does he want to be caught in it. Instead, he lurks in the shadows waiting for the scanning lights to vanish – a sign of his opportunity to assimilate with the rest of humanity. He is nothing if not a reluctant super hero decidedly unaware of his powers due to their quotidian function in his life.
As Drive continues, it becomes clear this is impossible. He isn’t a normal guy. He can’t escape his heroic destiny. It is just a matter of time before the spotlight catches up and shines on him. Refn confronts this notion through questions of family, allegiance, and protection. Although Driver lacks such personal qualities, he finds them through his interactions with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son. Their relationship is brief and dreamlike – they float around unexpected places in Los Angeles building a solemn, yet deep rapport through glances, sly smiles, and light touches. Refn refuses a clearly delineated romantic narrative – an element that will surely frustrate many viewers. The extreme brevity seems a hollow short cut, but it importantly mirrors the temporal nature of Driver and Irene’s relationship. They don’t have many moments together, but, when they do, it always means something. Refn understands a standard romantic narrative would never happen. Rather, like a flickering light, their “love” can only flash up for a split second before it disappears.
When Irene’s husband returns from prison, Driver sits idly by, even as the chances for a love connection are complicated. There are some brief moments of tension (benefited by the great performances), but Driver’s willingness to remain on the sidelines of the family indicate the stronger psychic willingness of his character to just be there – something Irene’s husband is unable to do. Driver doesn’t aggressively pursue Irene. Instead, he finds her husband in a difficult situation and tries to put his talents to use for them. This isn’t a competition for Irene, and Drive’s narrative seems wholly uninterested in this being deemed a love story. But if love means someone always being on your side, the Driver abides.
In the final act, the impossibility of the situation takes over. Drive, initially so restrained, is taken over by extreme violence, hostility, and heartless backstabbing. Driver can no longer maintain his blank slate status. Echoing the opening scene, as the situation crumbles around him, the Driver knows every move he has to make. This time, though, he steps into the sun and accepts his role as the hero (as the soundtrack makes completely obvious). Still, he can’t be hugged, accepted, or celebrated as such. Unable to be the heroic everyman, he must fade away, once again, into shadows and darkness.