Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Drive: Real hero, no backstory

with 5 comments

Well, that was good timing. Only a few days after I posted my manifesto on backstory, we’ve been given a movie that makes my argument better than I ever could: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. While not a perfect film, it’s close to a great one, and it reactivates pleasure receptors in my moviegoing brain that have remained dormant for years. Starting with its wonderfully clever opening chase scene and neon-tinged, electronically pulsating main titles, this is a film that proudly wears its influences on its sleeve: Thief, American Gigolo, To Live and Die in L.A., and any number of great ’80s crime movies fueled by the sounds of Tangerine Dream. (Note to my dad: If you’re reading this post and haven’t seen this movie yet, what are you waiting for? It even has your favorite actor.)

And much of the film’s fascination comes from how little we know about the protagonist. He’s simply called Driver. A few years ago, we’re told, he wandered into a Los Angeles garage, looking for work, and proceeded to become a brilliant stunt driver, mechanic, and wheelman. His blank gaze and difficulty in connecting with others, aside from his neighbor and her young son, hints at some kind of past trauma, but we aren’t told what this was—and we certainly aren’t told how he learned how to drive and, finally, kill so effectively, although stabbing a man in the throat with a curtain rod isn’t the sort of thing that comes without practice. He has fewer lines than any other important character in the film, and the screenplay around him, by Hossein Amini, is so spare as to seem nonexistent, in a good way. (According to the director, the shooting script was only 81 pages long.)

Much of our interest in Driver, of course, comes from the fact that he’s played by Ryan Gosling, and rarely have the gods of casting been on better behavior. Alfred Hitchcock knew that by casting a star, you can throw out the first reel, because a star brings his own aura and history to the part. For a role like this, Gosling is ideal: he’s undoubtedly a star, but also something of an unknown quantity, with a selective filmography and an air of detached reserve. His affect, as my smitten wife likes to point out, is that of a man smiling quietly at a private joke. He isn’t an actor you’d think of as an action star—apparently the role was originally intended for Hugh Jackman—but he embodies the character completely, and leaves you wanting more. Which, of course, the movie is too smart to give you. Any hint of backstory would have ruined the part: the embroidered scorpion on the back of his jacket, with its nod to Mr. Arkadin, tells us all we need to know.

Drive, then, is close to a textbook example of how to make a classic thriller, and I hope future directors and screenwriters study it intently. In the end, though, it falters a bit: what it needs is a closing aria of revenge like the one Michael Mann gave us in Thief, and what Drive provides is a little too schematic and unsatisfying. (For an example of how to do it right, please, please see here.) And yet there’s so much great stuff on display here that it transcends the weakness of its last twenty minutes. My wife will tell you that for most of the first hour, I was alternately grinning and shaking, or both, at watching something like mastery on the screen. Drive will be picked apart and admired by movie lovers for years to come, and its central lesson is clear for us all: you don’t need backstory to be a real hero. Or even, as the song over the closing credits reminds us, a real human being.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2011 at 8:45 am

5 Responses

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  1. Tangerine Dream? Maybe. Drive is greatly influenced by the Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack of American Gigolo, as is just about everything in the film Drive, including Gosling’s performance.

    marisol chow

    October 1, 2011 at 5:12 pm

  2. Oh, definitely. And I love American Gigolo (and Moroder). But I still think the primary reference point—at least to my eyes—has to be Thief.


    October 1, 2011 at 6:18 pm

  3. I just want to say, well written’s an interesting thought that the group that made up the large majority of the soundtrack for Drive (they are called Valerie Collective) take pride in their new renditions of synthed-out melodies of yesteryear. They also have a movie-production side project that actually brings the “back story” of weird unheard of videogames of the 80s-90s to life. Not knowing anything about Drive, aside from EVERYONE telling me I would love the soundtrack, led me to believe that the protagonist could very well be a characted in a videogame that was brought to life through some thoughtful imagination. Its interesting how it all comes full circle. (and theres not much dialogue in old videogames, interesting that Ryan does not speak much)


    March 5, 2012 at 11:20 am

  4. I do love the Drive soundtrack—the first three songs are basically on permanent repeat on my car stereo. And thanks for the tip on Valerie Collective—it sounds fascinating…


    March 5, 2012 at 7:31 pm

  5. I posit that given the time and setting Gosling’s character, Driver is ex-SOF from the early days of the war in Afghanistan, likely SEALs or some even darker wetwork. The time frame works enough for him to get messed up by the war, return to the LA area and work for a few years. Remember we have been at war in Afghanistan since October 2001. He clearly suffers from PTSD but has overcome it by basically burying it and refraining from talking about it. The way he reacts to situations is that of a professional soldier.

    Further, one thing that these guys have trouble with when coming home is the loss of life and death level adrenalin and endorphin rushes which are often found by soldiers coming home in risky activities like excessive speeding. Mechanical aptitude, a job as a stunt man and practice as a race driver combined with the extreme-adrenalin rushes you would associate with scouting or infiltration ops that he gets as a getaway driver. There is also the strain of contempt he holds for the criminals he works with. Much like Statham’s character in the Transporter who also was ex-SOF.

    Gosling’s note about him finally “being the hero of the movie” lends credence to the idea that he is hiding and escaping from his past as a soldier by being absorbed into the movie world as a stunt man, always pretending to be the main character in the heart pounding adrenalin scenes. So when he becomes the hero of his own movie he reverts back to his old self as a soldier and abandons the illusion he has been living the last few years.

    Tycho Science

    October 15, 2014 at 6:23 pm

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