One month to the day after publishing my original review, I’ve written an in-depth, three-part analysis of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” The post for Part One explains the details, but in brief, here’s how it breaks down: in Part One, I explored how “Drive” compares to the James Sallis novel on which it is based; in Part Two, I examined the many ways in which the film uses sound to create atmosphere and meaning; and finally, in Part Three, which you are now reading, I dive into the film’s thematic content and what deeper meaning I perceived.
Read Part Three of my analysis after the jump….
Part Three: The Themes of “Drive” – Death as Redemption
When I talk to people about “Drive,” a question immediately raised in the discussion is whether or not Driver lives at the end. As was my opinion last year with the conclusion to “Inception,” I don’t care to speculate. The point is that it’s ambiguous, that he could live or die, not that he will one way or the other. His journey has led him to this moment, where he is bleeding to death as drives through LA, and the story concludes here for a reason. Speculating beyond that isn’t the purpose of the scene, especially because, in my reading of the movie, Driver had already died long before the film’s final moments.
Not physically, of course, but I believe Driver’s spirit died during his last meeting with Irene on the elevator, the infamous scene where he stomps in the assailant’s face. I also believe that Driver as we know him was born inside this elevator alongside Irene – note that their first and last scenes together take place in the same elevator. Before he meets her, Driver is completely distant; he may have emotions, but they are buried deep down and we do not see them. The early scenes cut between Driver doing a number of activities: the opening heist chase, a stunt flip, meeting Shannon at the garage, shopping for groceries, etc., and in all cases, Driver is completely calm and stoic.
When he meets Irene, however, he begins to open up, and his character arc starts proper. This is why I define his initial meeting with Irene on the elevator as his ‘birth’ – it signals the start of Driver’s journey – and his final meeting with her on the elevator as his ‘death,’ for this is his last moment of character growth.
Let’s dissect the climactic elevator sequence: before getting on the elevator, Driver has his most emotionally open scene in the movie, confessing to Irene how his actions got Standard killed, and then suggesting, through tears, that he could come and live with Irene and her son. For the first time, he is being entirely honest with himself and with Irene, finally asking for the life he desires so strongly. We know Driver has no enthusiasm for his day job, or his night job, or most of the people around him; the only thing he loves in this world is Irene and the boy he has come to view as a son, and he wants to be there for them. “I could protect you,” he says softly.
Then the elevator door opens, and everything changes.
I think there are two possible readings of what happens next. As the elevator descends, Driver takes Irene and passionately kisses her, then moves on to kill their assailant by brutally stomping his head into mush. Driver absolutely goes overboard here, and on explanation is that he has come to the realization that he can not protect Irene, that his mere presence is destructive; he kills the man in the most violent way possible to scare Irene away for good, driving her off for her own safety. In this reading of the scene, he kisses Irene because he knows it is his last opportunity, and he wants one last fond memory of their time together before he forever destroys their relationship.
But I prefer a different interpretation, that Driver does not kill the man so violently on purpose, but because he gets swept up and consumed in his anger; through his brutality, he inadvertently destroys any chance to be with Irene. We know Driver is a violent man; at this point, we’ve already seen a few examples and we’re going to see a few more. In his base form, we know Driver is totally calm and collected, but when he gets angry, his rage manifests itself through terrifying acts of violence. The only thing that truly gets him mad, though, is when others seek to hurt his loves ones, and he loves no one more than Irene. Thus, his response to the audacity of her assailant is equally passionate, and he loses himself in his rage.
When the elevator reaches the bottom level, Irene stumbles out, staring horrified at Driver. He slowly turns around to stare at her, and the look on Ryan Gosling’s face says it all: he can barely believe what he just did, and he is in shock, eyes wide and body shaking. Then, as he sees how Irene looks at him, that expression changes from shock to sorrow. He never meant to drive her away like this. Perhaps the kiss was supposed to a message, a way of saying “I love you, and now I’m going to fight for you.” But the fight itself was too brutal, too animalistic and over the top, and his dreams of being with Irene are shattered, gone forever. Driver realizes this as the door shuts on Irene, removing her from his life forever, and in that moment, I believe that Driver ‘dies.’ He has lost any chance of living out his dream life; that realization of his true, destructive nature is his last significant bit of character growth. From there on out, he is just a ghost, albeit a vengeful one working hard to ensure that none of the antagonists can ever come after Irene again.
There’s more evidence to back up this theory: when Driver meets Bernie in a restaurant at the end of the film, we cut between their conversation and Driver leading Bernie to the money outside. Bernie tells Driver he’s going to have to put all his hopes and dreams on hold for the rest of his life; cut to the future, and Bernie stabs Driver in the stomach; cut back, and Driver is smiling idly. He knows what Bernie plans to do. He doesn’t have any hopes or dreams left anyway. Death won’t make a difference. Driver only has to make sure he takes out Bernie as well, just to make sure that Irene will be safe.
Thus, it doesn’t matter whether Driver lives or dies at the end of the movie. He has long since completed his character arc, and he has no more unfinished business. In a sense, he’s been dead for a while at that point. Were his physical body to pass, I don’t think he would mind, and were he to survive, I doubt he’d go on to live a full and happy life. At best, he would be the stoic shell of a man we meet in the first few scenes. Before meeting Bernie, Driver calls Irene to tell her that their time together was the best of his entire life, a recognition of the full existence he can never have without her. There is ambiguity in regards to Driver’s physical body, but no ambiguity for his soul: it is gone, stomped to death inside the same elevator where he first met the love of his life.
But as the movie comes to a close, the “Real Hero” song returns, chanting “…and a real hero/real human being.” Is Driver a hero? Could any of his actions in the film be construed as heroic?
Perhaps, though this requires another reading of the film. Both times I watched the movie, I interpreted Irene’s relationship with her husband, Standard, as an abusive one, or at the very least, unhealthy. She’s clearly not happy when she finds out he’s getting out of prison, and at Standard’s homecoming party, Irene retreats to the hallway after Standard makes a toast in her honor. I think it’s fairly clear she is wary of this man, and it’s made even clearer in a scene where Standard tells their son how he and Irene first met. Standard says Irene was 19, but she corrects him – she was 17. It is implied their one night stand turned into a pregnancy, and that when Benicio was born, Irene couldn’t have been older than 18. She could even have been 17 still, and in either case, what Standard did was statutory rape. Standard describes Benicio’s birth as the happiest day of his life, and as he does, Irene tries to hold back tears of anguish. Driver sits next to them, ever perceptive, understanding the nature of Irene and Standard’s marriage perfectly.
I don’t know whether Standard abused Irene before going to prison or not, but in either case, this is an unhealthy, destructive relationship that Irene does not belong in. Though she and Driver seem like perfect soul mates, I don’t think a life with Driver would be any less damaging.
Even in their early courtship scenes, Refn’s use of framing clues us into the long-term instability of a romance between Driver and Irene. After Driver, Irene, and Benicio spend a fun day together, they all return to the apartment. Driver sits by the window, and Irene comes up to talk to him; it is one of the most tender moments in the movie, but the framing suggests something the characters are unaware of: Driver sits on the far left side of the frame, Irene is on the far right, and between them is the green wall, consuming most of the shot. I would normally call this bad framing: the subjects are so vastly separated that the eye inevitably rests on neither of them, but I believe this is the point. There is something between these two characters, a barrier, if you will, that prevents us from seeing them as one unified whole. In a literal sense, this object is the wall, but that wall represents something more: their relationship is inherently unsound.
How could it not be? Driver is a criminal, after all, and a violent one at that. He may be a better man than Standard, but he’s not better for Irene, an innocent woman who deserves more than a life where her lover’s troubles put her safety in jeopardy. If we interpret the film this way, then I think Driver becomes aware of this at some point; this plays into the theory that he stomps the man’s face in to scare off Irene. He knows, in his heart of hearts, that he is bad for her, and that the cycle of abuse she got herself into with Standard will only continue if he becomes her lover.
Thus, Driver may very well be a hero in the end, because through his violent actions, he frees Irene from her destructive cycle of abuse. After losing Standard and Driver in the same week, I don’t think Irene will ever go looking for that kind of man again; she is now terrified of this lifestyle, and I suspect that next time she meets a good-looking guy on an elevator, she will be cautious. Does the Driver consciously plan all this? Perhaps not. But his struggles throughout the film did save Irene on multiple levels. He has wiped out all the bad guys gunning for her and Benicio, and if we assume that Driver dies in the end, then his own sacrifice ensures that Irene can never be with him, that she can have an actual shot at a safe and happy life. In his final moments, he is a real hero, a real human being.
My favorite movies are the ones we can interpret and discuss in a multitude of ways, and “Drive” is absolutely one of those films. I’ve been writing about this movie for well over four hours now, and though I think I could continue for four more, I’m going to call it quits. But I would love to hear your thoughts, so please, continue what I’ve begun in this three-part article, and sound-off in the comments section below!
Return to Part One to read about the adaptation of “Drive”
Or Part Two to read about the sound of “Drive”