SPOILER ALERT: As with all my posts, this one is intended for discussion purposes and will undoubtedly be most enjoyable for people who have already seen the film. I highly encourage you to watch Drive before reading this if you have never seen it before. Though, if you have not seen it, you may want to either scroll to the bottom of this post for a note on its content or look up the IMDB Parents Guide for the film. This film is certainly not for all viewers, especially younger ones. However, as you will see in this review, I find it to be a fascinating work of art that asks a lot of questions but may not answer them all.
We're never given the real name for Ryan Gosling's character in the movie Drive, released in 2011. We only know him as The Driver. That is what he does - he drives. During the day, he works part-time at a local body shop and part-time as a stunt driver for the movies - a profession where he pretends to be someone else. At night, the real driver comes out.
That is when he drives getaway cars for two-bit criminals working as part of a larger crime syndicate. Already in this review, I've hinted at two themes that are vitally important to this movie - perception vs. nature and control, or a lack therof.
When we first meet The Driver, he is in a hotel room preparing for one of his nighttime drives. He is facing the window, and his back is turned towards the camera. We see him in a scorpion jacket that will be prominently displayed throughout the film. It is the opening shot of the movie, and it is one to remember.
The Driver is on the phone, and he is giving clear instructions about how he will do the job. He gives his passengers a five minute window. "Anything happens in that five minutes, I'm yours. No matter what," he says. "Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own. Understand?"
This conversation tells us a great deal early on in the film. The Driver likes control, as we all do. He has rules. As long as he sticks to those rules, he's fine. Driving is a construct that he can control, and boy does he ever!
Some of the driving scenes in this movie, including the opener, are pure action thrills. They get your blood pumping on the adrenaline of the chase. From the title of this film, you might expect it to mainly contain scenes of this nature. It does not, and I believe it becomes more powerful for what it does instead.
On my first viewing of this film, I noted how sparse the dialogue is for basically the first half of the film. After the action-packed opening scene, the movie continues at a slower pace. But, notice that I did not say that the movie is slow. It only slows its pace. It does this by taking time to linger on facial expressions and reactions for longer than most movies choose to do nowadays. That is because this movie is enthralled by its characters, its main one in particular.
The Driver is a man who wants to believe he can change. He is pitiful in some ways. He sees the way he lives his life, the crimes he helps commit. Yet, he also sees good in himself, the person he could be if he could only get out.
This struggle is exacerbated by his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). The Driver finds out that Benicio's father is in prison, and he begins to see a vision of life with them. It undoubtedly looks to him like an early scene where he drives Benicio and Irene along the concrete basin of the Los Angeles River to its abrupt ending at a green riverside bank. It is a magical scene, set to the hypnotic tunes of A Real Hero by College & Electric Youth - one of the many perfect song choices in this film. For the Driver, it is a taste of what life could be like if he could only get out.
There's only one problem with that: himself.
At one point in the movie, he is sitting next to Benicio watching a cartoon with a shark. A conversation ensues that gives us great insight into The Driver's inner struggle.
Driver: Is he a bad guy?
Driver: How can you tell?
Benicio: Because he's a shark.
Driver: There's no good sharks?
More than anything, The Driver wants to know if you can change your nature or if you just are who you are. More specifically, he wants to know if he can change or if he is resigned to his fate.
At the same time he is meeting Irene, The Driver is also getting new opportunities in one of his day jobs. His boss at the body shop, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), has offered him a business opportunity. This one, once again, is centered on his identity - being a driver. Shannon wants to get into the racing business, and he's bringing along a business partner named Bernie (Albert Brooks). Both Cranston and Brooks are excellent in these roles, and they are a major reason for the movie's success.
When The Driver meets Bernie, he has just ended a test drive. The Driver's hands are covered in grease and grime. Bernie offers his hand for a handshake. The Driver balks and says that his hands are dirty. "So are mine," retorts Bernie, as they shake hands.
We quickly find out just how dirty Bernie's hands are. He has connections with the local mob through his partner, Nino (Ron Perlman). Nino isn't a fan of Bernie's new business venture, but he goes along with it. Bernie tells The Driver that Nino and his friends are the ones who gave Shannon his limp. They broke his pelvis. Bernie tells The Driver that both he and Shannon have a lot riding on this racing venture. The Driver begins to see that even aspects of his life that he thought were clean are, in truth, stained with blood.
Still, things are starting to look up for The Driver. In his eyes, the connection to Bernie and Nino pales in comparison to his connection with Irene and Benicio. They are his ticket out. But a phone call to Irene begins to show cracks in the foundation of this beautiful dream.
It is her husband's lawyer, and she finds out that he is due to be released from prison in a week. Upon his return, they throw a party in their apartment. Irene's husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), gives a toast to second chances - an opportunity to change. Standard walks out of the apartment to find Irene sitting in the hallway, talking to The Driver.
This scene is masterful for the way it visually depicts the tension. I must give credit where it is due here. My conception of this scene is largely in debt to a wonderful YouTube video by Every Frame a Painting where they discuss Refn's use of "The Quadrant System." Please watch that video, as they will do a better job of explaining the techniques at play here than I can. But I find this to be a wonderful example of how a movie can communicate meaning both through its words and its visuals. We understand from what the characters are saying in this scene that Irene and The Driver have a connection, but it has been affected by the entrance of Standard. The visuals underline and exacerbate that tension by literally showing the long shadow that Standard casts over The Driver. The scene is also aided by another wonderful song choice, this time Under Your Spell by Desire.
Now The Driver is beginning to have doubts. His vision for his life has been affected by forces outside his control. This struggle cranks up another notch when The Driver comes home one day to find Standard beaten and bloodied in the parking garage of their apartment complex. Standard, we come to find out, owed protection money to some bad men. Now that he is out, they came to collect. He didn't have it, and the price has now gone up. To repay them, he has to rob a local pawn shop - a job that he doesn't want to do. Remember, Standard sees his release from prison as a second chance. He, too, wants a new life with Irene and Benicio. But this situation seems beyond his control. And Irene and Benicio may be in danger. The Driver, because of his love for Irene, decides to help. In doing so, he realizes that he will be going even deeper into crime. Maybe he sees it as one last job. But, if he succeeds, Irene and Benicio will be reunited with Standard. Then what will The Driver do?
The Driver goes to a man named Cook (James Biberi) and says he is in on the job. There he meets Blanche (Christina Hendricks) who will join him on the heist of the pawn shop. They are told that there will be $40,000 in cash there.
The Driver takes Standard to the pawn shop where Blanche is waiting to begin the heist. Standard goes in, and The Driver waits. This is the five-minute window. This is a situation in which The Driver is used to having control. But as he is sitting there, another car pulls up to the pawn shop. This is not part of the plan, and The Driver's control begins to unravel.
Blanche comes out of the pawn shop with a large bag. She gets in the car, and they both wait as Standard exits the building. As he does, however, he is shot and killed by the pawn shop owner. The Driver, realizing that something has gone wrong, quickly flees the scene. The other car begins to chase them, and we are given another thrilling action sequence that showcases The Driver's ability. He drives, that is his identity.
The Driver and Blanche manage to escape to a hotel. There, he has some questions for her. He founds out that they have actually stolen more than a million dollars. Then, on the room's television, a news report about the robbery says that the owner reported nothing as stolen. In a fit of rage over the death of Irene's husband and Benicio's father, The Driver demands answers from Blanche. He finds that it was an elaborate setup and that both he and Standard were supposed to have been killed. He also finds out that Cook's real name is Chris, and he realizes that he needs to track down the people who planned this setup before they kill him, or worse, hurt Irene and Benicio.
He doesn't have very long to consider things, however. Blanche steps into the bathroom and is subsequently killed by a hitman sent to clean up the mess from the pawn shop. This is the point where Drive takes a massive shift in tone and visuals. To this point, it has moved along at a slower pace as we get to know the characters at play. It sets up the romanticism of the relationship between The Driver and Irene so we will feel the movie's ending in a tangible way. But as things begin to unravel, the movie descends into some of the most graphic violence I have ever seen on screen. I would say that this scene is particularly gory, but later scenes will pile on the violence as well. But this is itself a storytelling device. As the movie progresses, The Driver sees clearly the disgusting nature of the life he has chosen to live. But forces outside his control seem to pull him ever deeper into that life until he finally snaps. That moment comes after Blanche is killed, when The Driver decides to fight his way out. He kills the two hitmen in another gruesome exchange. He leans out of the bathroom, covered in blood, and considers what he has done. If there is still any strand of hope left in his life with Irene and Benicio, he has to get to the bottom of this. To get to the bottom, he must spiral downward. He finds out that it was Nino who was behind the heist.
In another scene between Nino and Bernie, they decide that The Driver, Shannon, Benicio, and Irene are the only ones who can connect them to the heist, which we learn was an attempt to keep the East Coast Mob from moving in on Nino's territory. In a chilling exchange, Bernie motions toward Chris (Cook) as a way of saying that he knows, too. Bernie then murders him in another brutal display of violence.
The Driver fears for Irene. He goes to her and offers her the money so that she can take Benicio and get away from this mess. A mess that The Driver has partially helped cause. She slaps him for such an offensive offer. At this point, the elevator in front of them opens. A man is there, and they both get on the elevator with him.
The ensuing scene is nothing short of brilliant. It is a scene that you will never forget once you have watched it. The Driver quickly realizes this man is a hitman sent to kill them. After making this realization he turns and passionately kisses Irene as the movie dims the lights and watches in slow motion. This is The Driver's last attempt at grasping the life he could have had. The moment, beautiful as it is, passes. As much as he would like to believe that what happens next was outside his control, The Driver makes the choice himself.
He turns to the hitman and disarms him, pushing him to the ground. Then, The Driver releases all his rage, all the pent-up anger from the death of Standard and the loss of his life with Irene. He stomps on the man's head in a bloody, gory exchange. In horror, Irene has now stepped out of the elevator. The Driver turns, once again stained in blood. They look at each other, both horrified by what they see. Irene, because she now sees this side of The Driver. The Driver because Irene is now completely lost to him. The elevator door closes, and so closes The Driver's chance for that life.
The Driver had previously warned Shannon to leave town after the heist. But Shannon was not fast enough. Bernie meets Shannon at the body shop and kills him with a razor. Bernie is in complete control, and we see him cleaning the razor and placing it neatly back in his personal collection afterwards. The Driver comes to the body shop and finds Shannon's lifeless body. His anger grows. With all hope of a relationship with Irene now lost, he must find another way to rise above his seedy life of crime. If he can do one last good deed, save Irene and Benicio, maybe that will be enough.
To do that, The Driver knows that he must face Nino, and Nino knows that The Driver has to go. We get the inevitable showdown. The Driver goes to Nino's establishment in a mask from one of his stunt sets. This scene is a beautiful display, once again, of The Driver's inner turmoil. There he is, looking in from outside the restaurant on the revelry of the seedy characters inside. He is wearing a mask. He is pretending to be someone else. And yet, in a way, he is looking himself in the mirror. The Driver then chases down Nino in his car and kills him.
He then calls Bernie and tells him that he has the money. He also asks whether Bernie knows the story of the scorpion and the frog. He says, "Your friend Nino didn't make it across the river."
I love when a work of art encourages us to investigate other works. The Driver does not tell the story of the scorpion and the frog. We are either supposed to already know it, or find it out on our own. I was not familiar with this story when I first watched the film. But I have since come to find out that it is an animal fable. Its origins are unclear, but it tells the story of a scorpion who needs to cross the river. He asks a frog to ferry him to the other side. The frog, knowing the scorpion's reputation, refuses. But the scorpion persuades him by noting that, if he stings the frog, they both will drown and die. The frog agrees to carry the scorpion on its back. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog. As they drown, the frog asks the scorpion why it stung him. The scorpion answers by saying that it was in his nature to sting.
It is clear that The Driver views himself as the scorpion from his comment about Nino not making it across the river. He feels that, despite all his efforts to get out, it is in his nature to kill and to work amid this life of crime. As the movie progresses, he begins to feel that he cannot change this nature, and he is resigned to this fate. He is a tortured soul who wants to change but believes that his nature will not allow him to.
But we as the bystanding viewers see that he is, in reality, the frog. When he drives for these criminals, he is literally ferrying them to the other side of the river. It is in their nature to kill and commit crimes. The Driver enables them and continues to get stung. We see that this is, in fact, not his nature and we hope that he can somehow get out. We want to believe that he can stop saying yes to the scorpions. We know that his nature is different, because of his love for Irene and Benicio. This is also where we get the payoff for the scorpion jacket, which has featured prominently in the movie to this point. The Driver has literally been carrying the scorpion on his back the entire time.
Bernie and The Driver agree to an exchange at a local restaurant - the money for Irene and Benicio's safety. There they meet, and we see two men who live off of control go face to face. Bernie tells The Driver that he can guarantee the safety of Irene and Benicio, but he cannot guarantee that for The Driver. From now on, he will have to live on the run. His dreams are dead. The scene is intercut with flash forwards where we see a final exchange between Bernie and The Driver behind the trunk of his car, which contains the money. They stab each other, and we see one rise above the other. But we only see the shadow. We cannot be sure of who won out until we see The Driver, in his blood-stained scorpion jacket, sitting on the car.
We then see The Driver behind the wheel. For what seems like ages, he sits staring unblinkingly ahead. We wonder if he is dead or alive. Then, he blinks and A Real Hero grows in the background again. He drives off, leaving the money next to Bernie's lifeless body. The movie cuts to a scene of Irene knocking on The Driver's door. He is not there.
We end the movie still not knowing who The Driver really is. We don't know what happens to him. We still don't even know his name. He is enigmatic. We also don't know what happens to Irene and Benicio. But all of that is information we do not need. All we need to know is that The Driver finally made the choice to stop ferrying the scorpion. He is stung one final time by the stab from Bernie. Truly, we do not even know for sure whether The Driver lives or dies. What we do know is that the movie ends with him in his element - driving. This time, he is ferrying no one, only himself. He has risen above his station by sacrificing his own desires for the safety of Irene and Benicio. He didn't even take the money. Instead, he did what he does...
Note on content: As I said in the review, this may just be the most violent movie I have ever seen. While that is clearly a device used by Refn in the story, it will undoubtedly be too much for some viewers. It is extremely gory and graphic. There is also profanity throughout this film. As I mention in my primer on content, I am not as bothered as much by violence and profanity in film. Certainly, considering some of the characters depicted in this film, those are to be expected. However, this film does also contain one scene of blatant, graphic frontal female nudity. The scene takes place in a strip club, and I now choose to skip the scene whenever I watch this film. That is my choice, and I wouldn't give it as a directive for how anyone else should or shouldn't watch the film. My hope is that you have already seen the movie before reading this review, but I understand that some may read it before seeing the movie. I only note it here so that you can 1) be aware of the scene for your own viewing decisions 2) be open to nuanced discussion on content in movies. I think this movie is a fascinating contemplation on nature and identity, and I feel it is worthy viewing despite some of its objectionable content.