DRIVE, Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011

No Good Sharks: Humanity and(/or) Heroism in Drive

Drive is really a film about the Driver, a character who appears in one shot as a male ingénue and in another as a merciless killer, driving from one murder to the next like a Wild West gunman. It is a paradox of the film that we understand exactly what he does and precisely why he does it, yet he remains profoundly mysterious. The Driver, and the film itself, represents in a sense a set of competing identities, bound together by a tenuous denial of their contradiction, an unlikely balance that works itself out in the narrative of a fairy-tale. Within the logic of the film, the Driver is, by definition, a hero. What, then, does it mean to be a hero? What, then does it mean to be a man?

We are given very little concrete information about the Driver: he has lived in Los Angeles for some time, he has recently moved to his current apartment, he works as a mechanic but moonlights as a stuntman and, previously, as a getaway driver. He has preternatural talents: we are never given reason to doubt his total mastery of driving or, eventually, of violence. He is pervasive and archaically noble; he is modest, kind, loyal, respectful, and self-sacrificing. He is, in short, the chivalric ideal of the romantic knight, the scion of a tradition of relatively chaste “courtly love” that has been largely eroded, for better or for worse, by the passing centuries.

Of course, the archetypal cavalier is not prone to beating people to death in an elevator. The tension the film introduces – between the apparent nobility of the Driver’s motives and the brutality of his actions – is at the core of his character, and it is also emblematic of a more fundamental disjunction in the film; the dyadic relationship that confounds the expectations of the viewer and that makes problematic the character and his environment. The dichotomy can be phrased in different ways – as nobility versus brutality, passivity versus activity, action versus reaction – or, as I will argue, modern masculinity (in the sense of the 1980s action hero, as phrased by Susan Faludi) versus, for lack of a better word, romance. The exact features of the first half of the film are best understood negatively, being thrown in sharp relief by the second.

Consider the opening chase scene, which is, in a sense, expected; the film is, after all, called Drive. This teaches us two things about Gosling’s character – that he is calm and that he is very good at driving. The characters, despite some difficulty, succeed in their heist and escape without problem. The corresponding scene from the second half of the movie is sparked by a total, shocking failure of the professionalism that corresponded to the first, and directly leads to the death of, at fewest, four people. The logic of the situation has changed – the impersonal, unnamed characters from the first are replaced by characters whom we have come to know (if briefly), and the staging has changed from an enclosed, urban area at night to an open, sparse desert illuminated by sunlight. Furthermore, the police, the symbols of authority and order who chase the Driver in the first scene, disappear from the film completely, replaced by their underworld equivalent.

The disjunction is not, diachronically, a completely clean one. The cool perfection of the opening scene is later compromised by the revelation that one of the Driver’s previous accomplices was jailed, and the man’s brother killed: the Driver’s professionalism and unflappability is challenged by his uncharacteristically terse and confrontational response. Of course, the Driver’s rejection of his criminal past is part of the narrative of the film, or appears to be. Like Standard, he wants a second chance, and like Bernie he wants to become “legitimate.” Ultimately, though his desires for this sort of thing are incidental, serving only as tools to his relationship with Irene; he is willing without deliberation or hesitation to abandon these aspirations when her life appears to be in danger. This decision could have warranted a film in itself, yet here it is almost non-existent, a red herring; the convention of the hero with the chequered past is for the past to catch up to him, but it is not the Driver’s past that catches up to him, but Standard’s. There was never any question that the film would involve conflict, of course, but the conflict that the viewer is drawn toward by the film is of a different kind than the one that ultimately consumes it.

Because of the “false omens” of the film, particularly the antagonism of Standard, the actual turn – which occurs in the vicinity of Standard’s and particularly Blanche’s deaths – is subversive without being arbitrary. What was tense in the film is not stretched further but is snapped completely, and in the remains of this rupture a new character emerges, or, at least, a new role is assumed. The Driver transitions from a wheel-man – the accomplice – into a killer. What exactly this transformation constitutes, and the degree to which it is a change or an unmasking, is the central question of the film. There is a song heard twice in the film, once on either side of the diachronic gulf. The memorable refrain identifies the song’s object as “A real human being/and a real hero.” Is that what the Driver represents and, if so, what constitutes the concepts?

With regards to heroism, or more precisely the role that the concept of the “hero” plays in cinema (and elsewhere in art), it is hard to avoid Joseph Campbell’s idea of the “monomyth.” Campbell posits an archetypal journey through a variety of stages, beginning with a call to “adventure” (defined somewhat loosely) and ending with the attainment of a degree of self-knowledge. If we suppose that the Driver is, in this sense a Campbellian hero, the journey would have to end with the achievement of this goal; the climax and sacrifice of the Driver would have to represent a change in his personality. But does the Driver attain self-knowledge? The transparency of his motives, which appear fixed and untarnished, belies the opacity of his thoughts. That is, it is clear what the Driver wants; he is driven completely by a desire to protect Irene and Benicio. What is not clear is, for example, why he wants it, or how he feels about the actions he takes or the circumstances that force him to take them. There certainly seems to be a sense in which the Driver is a mythic character who transcends development, who remains essentially unchanged throughout his ordeal. What does it mean, then, to call him a hero?

The sort of hero who forces men to swallow bullets or impales them with curtain rods is one that is conventionally bound up with the masculine. That is, it is bound up with a sense of masculinity infused with the cultural mores of particular periods and particular times, namely with the 1980s cinema from which Drive draws so much inspiration. Faludi’s book Stiffed provides a particularly fertile ground for this sort of analysis. It offers (among other things) a conception of 1980s masculine film that maps closely to the narrative of Drive by way of the 1982 film First BloodFirst Blood concerns John Rambo, a world-weary Vietnam veteran who is forced to re-enact his struggles in competition against a bloodthirsty World War II veteran sheriff, ultimately leading a one-man war against the police department before surrendering to a sympathetic army captain.

The identically named novel on which First Blood was based, however, does not have Rambo “forced” to stage this war; in fact it is his fractured psyche that causes the tragedy to be enacted. As Faludi details, the transition from novel to film, which included no fewer than four different re-writers, deprecates this change – Rambo becomes a passive recipient of society’s ill-feeling, a lone victim who seeks solace in the “good father,” who will validate his feelings and who seeks to defeat the “bad father” who forces him into conflict. Throughout Stiffed, notions of the paternal play a central role in Faludi’s analysis, for it is (conventionally) from fathers that the image of masculinity is constructed and elucidated. Thus the validation of Rambo by his “good father” is seen as the apotheosis of the masculine role. Rambo’s survival – the fiction that reinforces the mythology of the “series” – happened only because the audience despised his death, which was present in every script before the last one. Yet it also opened the gate for First Blood’s much more popular sequels, which abandoned the Freudian ambivalence, the “crisis of paternity” for an unambiguous and unapologetic celebration of the killing of human beings. If the production of First Blood was the crucible on which the masculine paradigm – which is a working out of a mythology at least as old as pro-World War II propaganda films – was forged, Rambo: First Blood Part II is the product, at once blood-drenched and morally pristine. The Rambo series, says Faludi, “reclaimed the virtue of the solitary American male.” (364)

Is this how the Driver sees himself? When Al Pacino was attached to First Blood during development, he asked David Rabe to write the screenplay. Rabe writes, “Pacino described to me that the guy should be like the shark – a mindless, driven, single-minded thing that is not available to any plea once it got loose.” (Faludi, 385) This recalls a memorable scene from Drive where the Driver and Benicio are watching a children’s program. Benicio identifies the shark as a “bad guy,” to which the Driver responds, “There’s no good sharks?” Of course, Benicio’s conception of morality is different from that of the action film, in which the shark is the very ideal of a hero, and of course the Driver wishes to reconcile the two domains.

Is such a reconciliation possible? Within the purview of the post-war masculine heroics that Faludi identifies, certainly – so the story goes. After all, what Faludi explicitly describes as the “cartoon mythology” of the latter Rambo films vindicates the “virtual sainthood” of the “supervictimized hero” against his “supervicious enemy” (365-367.)” This appears to be the fiction that the Driver entertains; we see the Driver not a as a character who is haunted by his past or his capacity for violence and brutality but as one who simply does not acknowledge them, or who segregates them from his personality. When asked about his “dangerous” work, he replies simply that “It’s just part time.” This partitioning of his life, this wearing of the mask is precisely the mythology of American masculinity that fails, in actuality, to be borne out. The Rambo of the novel First Blood – the one who eventually transmuted into the film’s “superhero – is a brutal, violent sociopath, a Frankenstein’s monster who was wronged but who reacts to his plight by lashing out against the innocent as well as the culpable.

And yet for all of his mastery of violence, the Driver is not incapable of emotion and certainly not incapable of virtue. He is without mercy perhaps but does show emotion upon, for example, the death of Shannon. Audie Murphy, decorated World War II veteran-cum-action star whose service served as a template for the contemporary notion of masculinity but whose life was essentially a psychotic wreck, wrote that he “feels no qualms; no pride; no remorse. There is only a weary indifference.” (Faludi, 376) It is with this indifference that the Driver approached his war. His motivations, however, are purer in a sense and more authentic. His dissonant serenity is the result of a childlike innocence that allows him to maintain the gap between an authentic romantic motivation and a culturally imparted and validated violent impulse that he picks up and wields; the latter is a tool, and like a tool it is not considered or meditated upon, it is simply used and (to employ Heideggerian terminology) ready-to-hand. There is, as Faludi says, “no need for a reckoning; there was no crisis.” (367) It is with a childlike naivety that the Driver moves forward, expecting no reckoning, feeling no remorse.

This quality which belies a general emotional immaturity in the Driver – evidenced particularly through his sometimes bizarre dialogue, empathy with Benicio, and his relationship with Shannon – reflects another premise of the general ideology of the action film, not only as a reflection of American ideals of masculinity but as a source of them. Speaking of the former president and actor, who lived vicariously through war films, Faludi writes, “Reagan had found the missing half of his manhood in celluloid images he conjured in the mirror. But what would other men find there?” (362) It is from the set of the stunt shot early in the film that the driver finds the mask he dons before he executes Nino; it is from the film itself, and its ilk, that he summons the narrative for the destruction of his enemies. Drive is set in Los Angeles, a city notorious for its violence but more notorious for Hollywood. In an earlier script, Irene tells the Driver that he should inform Benicio that he (the Driver) is a stunt man for the movies. He responds, “He’s interested in that stuff?” She says, “Aren’t all little boys?” (IMSDB) The Driver offering Benicio a “toothpick” also seems idiosyncratic until one considers the trope to which this appeals, of the macho westerner or the “tough guy;” these archetypes appeal to Benicio and also to the Driver. By contrast, the “arch-villain” of the film (although he is not really one of Faludi’s “supervillains,” he is seen as such by the Driver) deprecates his earlier film efforts, saying, “I used to produce movies. In the 80s. Kind of like action films. Sexy stuff. One critic called them European. I thought they were shit.” Bernie’s repudiation of the logic of such films – and consequently of the logic of the Driver and perhaps Drive itself, underscores his aloofness and establishes himself as an enemy of the foundation on which the Driver has built at least part of his psyche.

Drive itself is a film, of course, and its structure and plot, which resemble a fairy-tale in construction, abet the Driver’s actions, although not uncritically. He is not hounded by the police, after the first scene; reality does not intrude on the fable that he crafts for himself. He does not “get the girl,” so to speak, and the chastity of his relationship with Irene undercuts an assumption about hyper-masculine virility that is otherwise pervasive in works dealing with masculinity. Thus the archetype that the movies, in a sense, plays into, is not portrayed as glamorous, nor indeed desirable. The Driver explicitly says that his relationship with Irene was the best part of his life; it is this relationship that underpins and, in a sense, causes the film. If the Driver is noble he is so because of what he fights for, not that he fights nor how he fights. So does the fact that Drive permits the disjunction to exist undisturbed, in a sense, enforce it? Is Drive a paean to the 80s action archetype, suggesting only that it needs to be buttressed by a fairytale morality, or is the implication that it is only with the logic of a fairytale that the archetype can have reason? These questions are posed by the film, I think, but not answered by it. The answers depend on the extent to which the audience understands the Driver, and indeed the sense in which he can really be understood.

The best encapsulation of the character of the Driver in this sense I can give is in one of the most memorable scenes in the film, in which the Driver shares a long kiss with Irene before beating the man standing next to him, an assassin sent by Nino, to death. In this scene all of the themes of the film are incorporated; the Driver’s kiss, which is at once the apex and the closing to his relationship with Irene and, correspondingly, his “chivalric life” is contrasted with the true beginning of his active violence. He makes the move easily, without hesitation or regard for Irene’ presence. He is not embarrassed by the leap; perhaps he is not even cognizant of it. His escape from the film, in the final scene, marks his egress from both worlds – he leaves Los Angeles, the city of film and narrative, which no longer holds any enemies for him to conquer, and he leaves Irene, which leaves him nothing left to fight for in any case. This sacrifice is decidedly romantic, but it strikes one at the same time as profoundly masculine. This is who the Driver is, and aspires to be, both “a real human being” and “a real hero.”

Michael Bruner


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New World Library, 2008.

Faludi, Susan. Stiffed:The Betrayal of Modern Man. Vintage, 2000.

First Blood. Dir. Ted Kotcheff. Perf. Sylvester Stallone. Orion Pictures, 1982. Film.