Drive— which I flat-out loved— marks the sort of film that oozes with stylishness but only as a means to an end. Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir crime thriller brandishes a clear and unabashed devotion to aesthetic, design, and attitude which at a cursory glanced could be interpreted as the director’s emphasis on style over substance, but in truth the Danish filmmaker’s application of personal style actually points to and largely informs the thematic stuff simmering beneath Drive‘s macho, slick exterior; under the film’s stylized outer shell, Refn executes character studies on his principle and key supporting players. Just as Drive employs Refn’s personal style as a cover for the serious character work taking place behind the scenes, each of the picture’s characters similarly hide the truth of who they are with cultivated images of composed coolness.
Because the movie revolves around Ryan Gosling’s reticent getaway driver, it makes the most sense to use him as a springboard to analyze how Drive lends an air of collected calm to its most important characters in order to veil their genuine selves from the audience and from the rest of the film’s cast. After all, nobody better exemplifies the film’s philosophy of emotional duplicity better than the Driver, a quiet young man who fixes cars by day– serving as a stunt driver on Hollywood film sets when opportunity presents itself– and aids robbers and thieves with a swift vehicular escape from the law by night. He’s a textbook example of the self-alienated loner, a tough guy who for reasons only he can appreciate has denied himself the pleasure of meaningful human contact in favor of keeping his head down and staying off of life’s radar. In his ideal world, the Driver is invisible to everybody.
But the reverse is not true, and for how hard he tries to avoid attention and remain alone, he’s still a sucker for a pretty face. Enter the dame of Refn’s neo-noir, Carey Mulligan’s Irene, a young mother with a penchant for restrained speech that compliments the Driver’s own inclination to silence. It’s his budding friendship with Irene that leads the Driver into Drive‘s conflict, a heist that genre rules dictate must go badly; the Driver tries to help Irene’s husband, recently released from prison, pay off debts he earned during his incarceration. Unsurprisingly, the ordeal ends in bloodshed.
When it does, the conditions and demands that the Driver’s services require strike an urgent sort of logic; clearly he knows from experience what happens when a plan goes awry and therefore allows only marginal room for error. But his obsession asserting control over his involvement in heists hints at something more. There may be truth to the suggestion that the Driver heavily regiments the heists he involves himself with out of experience– without that discipline, the job goes south and people die– but his fixation with control originates directly from his intimate knowledge of what happens when he loses control.
As the film plays and his situation grows even more dire, we see firsthand exactly what that means. The Driver showcases an aptitude for brutality that even Drive‘s heavies don’t possess; when he’s painted into a corner and left no options, he’ll swing a hammer to shatter bones. Or worse. The scene in the elevator of Irene’s and the Driver’s apartment building very fervently underscores the kind of violence he’s capable of, and it’s the point in the movie where his dynamic with Irene changes forever; she’s never seen him in this light, and the confrontation completely upends her perception of him.
Ultimately, through the Driver’s displays of savagery, we learn precisely why he’s in a form of self-imposed exile; he fears what he’s capable of when he’s pushed. Going further, there may be an argument to be made for the Driver being borderline psychotic. Of course the Driver isn’t to be confused with your stock psychopath, the kind of remorseless sadist void of anything resembling conscience– he’s not wantonly cruel and does not inflict injury on anyone who doesn’t try to hurt him or someone he cares about first– but he’s deeply damaged at his core in a way that leaves him teetering between complete detachment from personal relationships and unhinged barbarity. The only way he sees to avoid the latter scenario is to obey the former rule. The Driver, for his better qualities, remains an incomplete person– though by the end of Drive he may have found a semblance of peace as he drives through L.A. in solitude.
The Driver isn’t the only person in the film who hides his violent side from others; he has a mirror image in Albert Brooks’ deliciously ruthless Bernie Rose, a former action movie director turned gangster. The two men connect through their mutual associate, Shannon, the Driver’s boss and surrogate father figure; Shannon wants to put the Driver’s skills to good use behind the wheel of a NASCAR race car, and requests Bernie’s backing to make it happen. As with all dreams and ambitions in Drive, their bid for racing success ends badly– the aforementioned botched job sees to that.
Bernie proves an interesting reflection of the Driver. While their personalities differ greatly they both share a common objective of self-control, turning to violence only when they have no other choice left them. Bernie, we can infer, doesn’t especially want to kill Shannon at the behest of Nino– the man who ordered the botched heist to steal from the East coast mafia– but it’s business, and he has no other choice. Maybe he finds murdering Cook, the thug Nino put in charge of the job, less objectionable, but it’s clear through the entire bloody sequence that while he’s not exactly put out by slashing Cook’s throat, he’s still not entirely happy that things had to come down to killing.
Despite the similarity, Bernie and the Driver fundamentally differ at their cores precisely because of how they both react when circumstances force their hands. The Driver abandons control and goes berserk; Bernie, by comparison, succeeds in maintaining his cool. No matter how viciously he expresses his violence, there’s never a hint that he’s out of control. Nothing highlights this better than the last conversation Bernie holds with Shannon before fatally slashing him; cutting him to the bone from wrist to elbow the gangster assures his old friend (not unkindly at all) that his impending death will be painless. The moment strikes a stark contrast to the Driver’s unbridled attack on Nino’s thug during the aforementioned elevator scene, where the Driver shows not one iota of compassion for his victim before crushing his skull with the heel of his shoe. Meanwhile, even when violence is his duty, Bernie strives to preserve control and retain his humanity.
Bernie’s just a mirror Refn turns upon the Driver, of course, and not the main thrust behind Drive‘s narrative. This is the Driver’s story, and more importantly Refn’s character study upon the Driver; Bernie merely exists to oppose the Driver as an antagonist and also to shine revealing light on the character’s nature through demonstrations of his own violent tendencies. Drenched in Refn’s stylistic touches, Drive is a film that’s as rigid and tightly reigned in as its principle character and its true focus lies in that examination of the limits of control for the Driver.