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September 23, 2021

[Note: This piece is more of a short essay than a review. As such, it contains spoilers about the movie.]

When I watch most of the movies that might be my favorite, I don’t tend to notice the director’s hand too heavily. I enjoy a good Tarantino or Scorsese flick, but whether it’s because of the strong “filmmaker” point of view or . . . something else they coincidentally lack in common, those movies tend not to be my absolute favorites.

That’s why I was surprised, when I watched Drive again for this series, both to notice a lot of directing going on and to find that it only sucked me in even more and heightened my engagement this time. Maybe I’ve just been looking to the wrong auteurs to connect with. Maybe Nicolas Winding Refn is more my speed.

Drive opens with a sequence that immediately grabs us. Ryan Gosling as The Driver is on the phone, giving instructions and permitting no questions. He’s a hired driver for criminals who need to get away from the scenes of their crimes. He’s obviously good at what he does. We seem him complete this introductory job masterfully, with a combination of extensive preparation, extreme driving skills, and pure balls. By the time he delivers his clients to safety, we see that everything that happened along the way–including close calls and unforeseen police movements–was all accounted for and the chase ends just how the Driver planned. (I’m not an expert at parsing movie making, but I enjoyed this clip breaking the set piece down.) The insane level of competence on display (by both character and director) makes you almost forget about Ryan Gosling as a pretty boy. You think to yourself, do I secretly want to be Gosling? Is he up there with James Bond?

In Refn’s hands, the answer is yes. The Driver is skilled, quietly brooding, capable of extreme violence, has a very cool jacket, and wants has a soft spot in his heart for people who need his help. It’s no secret by now that my favorite movies are filled with men confronting their inner darkness. I’m sure you can draw some psychoanalytic conclusions about me from that. The thing is, we all have to deal with that to some degree, but our culture increasingly demonizes that process, or worse, pretends it doesn’t exist. There’s a reason The Sopranos is an all-time great show and I have a hard time finding TV shows anymore that can even hold my interest lately. It reminds me of popular men’s fragrances today all seem to make you smell “fresh” or “clean”–like shower gel that scrubs the masculine odors from our bodies and along with it any masculinity remaining in our souls.

I will admit that Drive can exaggerate real life and drift almost into the cartoonish. In that way it’s like a super hero movie, but one with a main character I can relate to for a change. The other main scene here that wears its filmmaking loud and proud comes when The Driver confronts a thug sent to kill him in an elevator. After taking a moment to maybe imagine kissing but maybe actually kiss the woman he likes, he brutally kills his would-be assassin. He ends up stomping his face quite a few times more than necessary, unleashing reserves of fury far beyond the current situation. The maybe-just-kissed woman is horrified by the violence she just saw and the bestial look of The Driver’s face and body. And isn’t that what we all fear deep down? That if someone–especially our woman–were to see the full extent of our inner capacity for rage she would be scared away, and likely with good reason? No, just me?

We get to that point in the elevator due to some, you know, plot. The Driver first meets this woman who will later be with him in the elevator, Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, by coming to her rescue, helping when her car breaks down. Spending time with Irene and her son, the Driver starts to feel some actual purpose in his life. (If you want to tell me it’s a cliché to have the man rescue a damsel in distress and that Irene’s presence in the story is merely instrumental to the Driver’s point of view, I’ll concede the point. But look, clichés don’t stick around because there’s nothing too them. It’s true that men find meaning in solving problems and seeing gratitude and admiration in a woman’s eyes in return. How do you think we got washing machines and birth control pills, and, well, civilization, basically?)

Turns out Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac!) has been in jail and is getting out soon. When he shows up we see some masculine rivalry between the two men, played deliciously more through alpha posturing and subtext than in the actual dialogue. The three become friendly, however, and it’s when the Driver, channeling his gentlemanly restraint to help Standard for the good of Irene’s family, decides to help the him with “one last” criminal job and free him from that life that the movie really gets going.

And as it goes along, we get fun performances from a lot of actors we love to love: Brian Cranston, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendriks, and Albert Brooks. Who, along with Isaac’s Standard, all die. (I gave a spoiler alert up top!) Violence is a big part of the Drive world. It’s in our nature–at least some of our natures. To make sure we get the point, the Driver’s jacket displays a large scorpion on the back. The Driver himself recounts the parable of the scorpion and the frog. You know the one, where the scorpion stings the frog while being carried across the water, even though the scorpion kills itself along with the frog. It’s the scorpion’s nature.

And, instead of showing growth or change in its characters, Drive emphasizes that unchanging, scorpion part of our nature. The movie ends with the Driver barely escaping the death-fest everyone else succumbs to. He doesn’t get the girl. Despite the purpose he found in coming to her aid, his very nature that saved her is what got her in trouble in the first place. Even if she could get over her fear of his savagery, his nature would only bring more danger to her in the future if they stayed together. So he moves on. Nor does he take what appears to finally be a strings-free million dollars at the end. But we haven’t seen that money has motivated the Driver in the least, so that’s not a change for him. If anything, his experiences in the story seem to harden his character as a man living by his skills, destined to be alone with his violence, reminded that indulging in feminine and other human companionship gets people hurt, even when his intentions are to help. Perhaps more than that, even though he never showed more humanity and life than when he was playing a sort of surrogate husband and father, he realizes his propensity for violence will never let him have that in the end.

Of course The Driver is an extreme example of our inner darkness being at odds with society or human interaction. Maturity means finding a way to integrate our natures into real life. But we all have that dangerous part of us that we hope comes out when necessary but doesn’t do too much damage. Pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it’s not there. Artful journeys into our darkest human depths hit on something profound. And that’s why Drive might be my favorite movie.

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