October 11, 2011
Drive is a vicious thrill of a film. The visceral kick of that hour and a half in the theater becomes aftershocks of insight during the drive home, the next morning’s coffee, and even a walk with the dog a week later. Beneath its slick skin of 80s-video glam and mob-flick bravado beats a slow, contemplative pulse. The film slyly acknowledges, and complicates, star Ryan Gosling’s status as the thinking woman’s sex symbol by presenting his character, a stunt driver who loans his services to L.A.’s underworld as a getaway guru, as the newest member of the fraternity of Men With No Names—or, more accurately, men who want to be The Man With No Name.
The ways in which Clint Eastwood’s iconically-monikered character has inspired and informed cinematic masculinity has been the subject of many a cinema studies dissertation and impassioned post on a Tarantino fan forum. His arctic intelligence and implacable cool get him out of town every time, the bag of cash tucked under his poncho with his still-warm gun. Though the Dollars Trilogy glamorizes his ruthlessness against those who have what he wants, he is still called upon to fulfill the archetype of the noble protector. Indeed, the only time he’s ever captured by his foes (though not for long) in A Fistful of Dollars is after he frees the young woman who has been pressed into sexual slavery by his chief rival. There is only peril—no prospect of gain—in the venture, and even the woman he saves questions his motives. He replies, “Because I knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help.”
Perhaps the enduring appeal of The Man With No Name is that he gets to be all things, all at once: He is lethal when he needs to be, compassionate when it suits him and unfailingly pragmatic even when he does act on emotion. Yet without the grounding impact of a name, this samurai-as-gunslinger is just a series of actions and a collection of moods. His cinematic acolytes are left to piece together these impressions into something resembling a persona. More often than not, they’re unable to become fully actualized individuals, and that’s arguably the filmmakers’ point: when we live in a culture that insists we perceive ourselves through archetypes—and let’s be honest, we’ve taken the “Which Sex & The City Gal R U?” or the “Which Kind of Zombie Apocalypse Survivor Will U B?” quizzes on Facebook (for the record, I’m a Miranda and a “lone wolf” survivor)—our richest, innermost selves become unknowable.
Travis Bickle may or may not save the girl, but he’s still unhinged by his own reflection. Tyler Durden doesn’t even exist, except as a nebbishy everyman’s Id. The only descendants of The Man With No Name who go on to fulfilling lives are those who are challenged to take stock of their actions and to rejoin the human race: Spaghetti western’s other blondie, Uma Thurman’s character in the Kill Bill movies, comes to terms with all the killing she did even before she went on what the movie advertisements called a rip-roaring rampage of revenge. Mad Max moves from self-survival to self-sacrifice so that a group of innocents can boot-fuck it out of Bartertown.
In interviews about Drive, Ryan Gosling has said that Travis Bickle largely inspired his character, who is simply called Driver. “ I think they share that fantasy of needing to be a hero,” he told AV Club’s Chris Kompanek. Like Bickle, Driver is a character with a ferocious interiority that doesn’t translate to any actual introspection. “I think he’s somebody who’s seen too many movies,” Gosling adds, when asked to expand on the comparison. “He’s confusing his life for a film, and he’s made himself the hero of his own action film. He’s just kind of lost in the mythology of Hollywood.”
Though, as the tagline (one of those sentences that seems “well, duh”-worthy but has the deceptive simplicity of a Zen koan) tells us, he doesn’t carry a gun, he drives (he also bludgeons, stabs, stomps, and drowns), Driver ascribes to the cinema cowboy’s ethos of stoic chivalry. His Spartan apartment tells us that he’s not interested in wealth. Even though he has Ryan Gosling’s swoon-inducing boyishness and buff-enough-for-action-flicks brawn, not to mention regular access to moviemakers (however low-level), he doesn’t take advantage of it—any of it—so he’s clearly not motivated by fame. The only thing propelling him through the film is his attachment to his neighbor, Irene, and, by extension, her young son, Benicio.
Lone wolves who are secretly guard dogs make up a large faction of the fraternity of Men With No Names; they’re all on the cusp of getting out (wherever “out” is) when they’re pulled back in by a job they know they have no business taking in the first place. For Driver, this job is helming the getaway car that will usher Standard Gabriel (Irene’s perfectly-yet-improbably named husband) from his last job, the pawnshop robbery that pays back the protection money (with interest) that kept him safe while in prison. In the film’s very first scene, we’ve heard Driver lay down his terms: He discards his phone after each preliminary call, drives each client only once, and waits with the car for five minutes exactly (“after that, you’re on your own”). The sequence afterward—where Driver eludes patrol cars and a police helicopter by snaking his Impala through the Staples Center parking lot on a game night—is a breathtaking display of martial efficacy.
As soon as he’s put the car in park, Driver slips clean, donning a Dodgers cap and weaving through the crowd without so much as a glance back to see if his clients have escaped (though presumably they do). Crime is merely something he facilitates, an impassive avenue for his cunning—his great aspiration is to be Irene’s White Knight. Even their meet-cute—he drives her home from the store after her car breaks down, and not only walks her groceries in, but puts them on the shelves—is engineered to show him as an ideal romantic lead: manly and competent, but kind.
This is the gentleman who inspires the “Hey Girl” meme (My personal favorite is the caption written beside a close-up of a suit-wearing, über-earnest Gosling: “Hey Girl, My new year’s resolution is to give you more foot massages.”), who speaks against sexist double standards in film, and waxes ecstatic about his leading ladies, onscreen and off, to the press. The anonymity of the character invites the viewer to superimpose their impressions of Gosling over his actions. When he carries a sleeping Benicio in from an outing I turned to my friend and said, “My ovaries just exploded.” Driver offers Irene and Benicio unconditional affection and protection; save for a single kiss, he’s essentially asexual.
“It’s a non-sexual connection,” Gosling explained in an interview with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir. “That was key for us, when we took out the sexuality and it became more about how he was her knight, and his duty was to serve her in any way, and to die for her. That was his destiny.” This reads like an explication of the lyrics for one of those inexplicably—yet inevitably—popular boy bands. The first half of the film carefully cultivates Driver’s persona as the strong, silent, upstanding type you’d take home to mother (and lord over your girlfriends), only to upend it with savage glee.
Consider another White Knight who came bearing a black flag: If we were to take certain scenes between Travis Bickle and Iris, the twelve-year-old prostitute he has made his damsel in distress, out of the context of the film, we’d only see a well-intentioned, if terminally uncool, uncle figure offering trite-but-truisms (“you should be at school, going out with boys your own age”). When he takes her to brunch, he urges her to consider the other women that Sport, her pimp (who is, in his own way, as aptly named as Standard Gabriel), beats; in between bites of toast and jam, she blithely asks him if she should call the cops. The embattled exasperation in his face becomes the righteous fury he unleashes when, in the finale, he rescues Iris from a john old enough to be her grandfather.
A single mother scraping by a waitress’ pay and a veteran of the corner who hasn’t even blown out the candles on her thirteenth birthday cake are not likely to find much recourse other than the knights who ride in for them. More’s the pity, then, when these knights are just as violent as the ogres of the underworld they’re defending against. Travis Bickle shoots Iris’ john right in front of her before attempting to blow his own head off, the emptied gun clicking right by Iris’ ear as she cowers behind the sofa.
Irene’s one moment of romance—a Hollywood kiss in a dingily lit elevator—becomes an orgy of gore when Driver abruptly breaks the kiss to pummel the hitman who has stowed in with them. Driver doesn’t just subdue the man, or even stop at killing him; he pulps him unrecognizable. The stricken look on Irene’s face is half horror, half betrayal. How could it not be, when the passion that has expressed itself so tenderly with her can snap, oh-so-suddenly, into wolfish brutality.
“I think we tried to make a werewolf movie without the makeup,” Gosling told O’Hehir. “There’s a violence in him that he’s afraid of. He’s in a race to try and find a good cause that he can channel it into, before it turns on him.” Like Iris, Irene’s abject vulnerability tugs enough at our sympathies that perhaps, we’re inclined forgive their rescuers’ excesses. Still, in that same interview, Gosling points out that his character could have just easily tipped off the cops to the small time hoods whose big time score caused this mess. “He had to be a character with an unnatural and unhealthy sense of romanticism.”
The film is rich with symbols: The only time we see Driver at his legit gig as a stuntman, he’s posing as a police officer and wearing a latex mask so he can pass for the leading man. He literally crashes a car with “to serve and protect” written on it. Even the soundtrack, a cheesy 80s synth-pop that simulates high emotion without actually achieving it, colludes on the delusion. The lyrics of the recurring track, “A Real Hero,” are almost absurd in their banality: “a real human being and a real hero.”
Because he insists on being the latter, he can’t ever be the former. His “heroic” violence is so thoroughly theatrical (beating a thug with a hammer before forcing him to choke on a bullet, drowning a foe in the ocean while wearing the leading man’s latex mask) that it barely registers above standard horror flick antics, or even Eastwood shooting damn dirty bastards off their horses. The only moment of genuinely unsettling violence is when Driver hits his one-time accomplice, Blanche, across the face.
It’s tempting to dismiss this as an action taken under extreme duress (Blanche was involved in the double-cross that lead to Standard’s death, though her reactions—which range from squealing terror to mute shock—indicate that she wasn’t aware the treachery could end in death), but it’s not a snap-out-of-it slap; he keeps his leather gloves on to sharpen the sting, then points his index finger between her eyes like a gun barrel.
The kohl raccoon-rimming her eyes and the acid-washed denim clinging for dear life across her sumptuous rump give Blanche the aura of that girl back in middle school who didn’t have time to catch up with her breasts, the girl who decided that if she was getting groped at school and smacked around at home, then hell, she might as well become what they’re calling her. In her own way, Blanche is every bit as wounded as Irene; in a different movie, she’d be the damaged damsel lifted out of her life of crime by a ferociously devoted gallant. In this film, however, she is the negative integer in the Madonna/whore equation. Even the lighting favors Irene, giving her blond hair and fair skin an otherworldly luminescence. But Blanche is fleshy; she is flawed. She’s the kind of woman who can get smacked when she gets too out of line.
However, after he’s let her up, Driver’s face tightens with grief. Perhaps he’s reconciling the image of Irene’s prince charming with the man who pins a woman to the bed and hits her in the face. More likely, he’s wondering where the hell he goes from here. On a meta-level, this expression, which titters between shock and resignation, is Gosling, feminist heartthrob, wriggling out of his character and acknowledging that the Hey Girl guy just became that guy. Still, the way he looks at Irene before that elevator kiss made me weak in the knees, even though I was sitting down. Though Drive certainly bows at the altar of noir, it manages to nod at dime-store romance; a thousand pulp novel publishers—not to mention Marlon Brando’s career—were launched by the undeniable appeal of being the woman who inspires tenderness in a brute. The less-sexy side is, of course, that you are only as safe as his regard for you.
In his review of Taxi Driver, critic James Berardinelli mused on the ironies of the film’s happy(ish) ending: “Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader append the perfect conclusion to Taxi Driver. Steeped in irony, the five-minute epilogue underscores the vagaries of fate. The media builds Bickle into a hero, when, had he been a little quicker drawing his gun against Senator Palantine, he would have been reviled as an assassin. As the film closes, the misanthrope has been embraced as the model citizen — someone who takes on pimps, drug dealers, and mobsters to save one little girl.” In his commentary on the film’s 30th anniversary edition, Schrader himself expands this interpretation, adding that “Travis isn’t cured” by the film’s end, and that “he’s not going to a hero next time.”
At least Sport, and even Bernie, the dour Mafioso whose second-in-command is to blame for the Keystone Kops operation that sets Drive in motion, own their urges. Neither pretends to be anything but awful. Bernie is the only other character whose violence approaches Driver’s bombastic pageantry. Other gangsters are content to pull triggers, or, better yet, order hits from afar; Bernie prefers a more personal—and symbolic—approach. After reproaching his second-in-command, Nino, for allowing his wounded pride to cause an off-the-Richter scale clusterfuck, he butchers one of Nino’s lieutenants right in front of him. As the hapless man hemorrhages over his jumbo slice, Bernie continues to stab him until he’s long past the point of an open casket—the message to Nino is quite clear. Still, the piston-like relentlessness of the assault parallels Driver’s elevator stompfest.
Despite his flair for dramatics, we only see Bernie react violently when he feels he’s been backed into a corner (not unlike Driver, or at least how Driver perceives himself). Though he doesn’t tilt at windmills for anyone, he does have his soft spots. Earlier in the film, Driver’s Willy Lomanesque employer, an old grease jockey named Shannon, tries to procure Bernie’s sponsorship for his scheme to turn Driver into a NASCAR superstar; after Bernie agrees to put 30 thousand upfront, he takes Driver aside to tell him the story of how Shannon got his limp: Though Shannon owed the bookies copious dough, Bernie was amused enough by his guileless huckstering to live and let live. Nino, however, took his pound of flesh by breaking bones. Indeed, Nino’s bullish impulsivity makes Bernie look like a paragon of restraint.
Bernie and Driver move through their narrative threads contending with other men’s frailties. Perhaps Bernie is so wistful about Shannon’s desperate dreams because their optimistic sheen is something he can no longer afford. And, of course, we all have that acquaintance who gives us our regular shot of schadenfreude; it’d be too damn sad to let them actually get close to us, so we regard them with a comfortably detached beneficence: no matter what we’ve done (or haven’t), who we’ve become (or haven’t), at least we’re not them.
Shannon and Standard are like those drunk uncles who come lumbering out of grandma’s basement just long enough to ruin Thanksgiving. It’s hard not to cringe with chagrin on Standard’s behalf when Driver finds him after he’s been beaten in front of Benicio; when the son who shares his eyes, his hair, and the color of his skin is lifted away on the shoulders of the hunk next door. Standard is a kind of modern-day Tuco, an oafish schemer who will always watch The Man With No Name ride away with his gold. Although Driver doesn’t really come away with anything, not even the girl. When he attempts to barter with Nino, and then with Bernie, he only asks for Irene’s safety in exchange for the heist money, which suggests that he isn’t exactly envisioning a future at the head of a Sunday dinner table, waiting to be served the big piece of chicken.
Of course, dying for love is far easier than being woken up by someone’s snoring or wiping up the toothpaste lather they’ve spit into the sink. Even Bernie’s relationship with Shannon feels far more authentic. Though Shannon proves ultimately expendable for knowing too much, Bernie takes no satisfaction in the kill, opting for a stealthy method that leaves Shannon too in shock to feel pain. His voice is thick with regret as he hushes the dying man with assurances that it doesn’t hurt, it’ll be over soon. This moment feels every bit as intimate as that elevator kiss.
After the “lesser” men, the ones lacking in fortitude, cunning, and resolve, have been left to molder, Bernie and Driver meet one final time to (quite literally) settle the score. Though Bernie praises the food at the Chinese restaurant he’s chosen, neither man takes so much as a single sip of water. The glum pragmatist and the steely idealist face each other across a narrow table. Bernie concedes that since the East Coast mafiosos whose money he must return don’t know about Irene, killing her isn’t necessary, but out-and-out tells Driver that his offer ain’t a package deal.
Shots of Bernie stabbing Driver over the sun-bleached asphalt are quick-cut into the restaurant scene, suggesting a tacit understanding between the two of them: this is the only way it could ever go down. Still, Drive’s homage to spaghetti western would be fatally undercooked if “the Bad” didn’t go down as well, and, though his life is leaking out through his satin jacket, Driver is able to land the few strategic blows that fell his foe instantly. With an effortless cool that would’ve made even Steve McQueen shake his head and say “damn,” Driver pilots his car toward the L.A. sunset.
Given that he only snaps wakeful after a tantalizing fake-out—the camera panning with crystalline stillness over his inert, bleeding body—it’s easy to interpret this scene the way that many critics have interpreted Travis Bickle’s cab coasting through the steam-licked streets of Manhattan in the last scene of Taxi Driver, as the final dream of a dying mind.
As I took in Drive’s very last sequence, night enveloping the car as it moves toward some dim horizon, I thought of another comparison. In his attempts to be Blondie or Bullitt, or even Lancelot, Driver isn’t unlike Emma Bovary, or even Anna Karenina, who shucked away their humdrum homes to live between the pages of a grand romance. Only Driver, and Bickle, and so many unknowing anti-heroes are romancing an immaculate masculinity. Perfecting the stoic side-eye is their poetry, the art that will make them Men With No Names and spare them the burden of simply being men.