Whenever I try to type Nicolas Winding Refn, I type Nicolas Wingding Refn. Wingdings were developed in the early 1990s and are dingbat fonts that combine shapes, gestures, and widely-recognized symbols such as the Star of David and the zodiac, and place them in positions designated for letters and numbers. In typography, a dingbat is a symbol or glyph designed to play a visual role on the page. And a glyph is an elemental symbol within an agreed set of symbols, intended to represent a readable character. But all of this has little, if anything, to do with the Danish director Ryan Gosling named to steer his starring vehicle, Drive, and I’m also not sure if any of it is true. I found it on Wikipedia.
Of his 2011 film Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn has said, “It’s a fairy-tale.”
Names are important. To name something is to have power over it—to write its place into the world. Merriam-Webster (who wrote dictionaries, not fairy-tales) names fairy-tales as stories involving fantastic forces and beings, stories in which improbable events lead to a happy ending, and—or—all at once—made-up stories usually designed to mislead.
Drive follows a nameless stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a wheelman for criminals. At night, he dons a shiny jacket emblazoned with a yellow scorpion and offers five minutes—and only five minutes—of salvation to whatever crooks want to escape hell (un)buckled into the backseat of his ride. Then he effortlessly harrows the city of Los Angeles and its law enforcement before the sun ascends. Though the Driver’s only the getaway, any activity, criminal or otherwise, can’t begin until he arrives, and when it does, it plays by his rules. Removing his watch, he buckles it to the steering wheel, and with that gesture, it’s settled: Gosling’s character is going to drive the film, and we’re welcome to sit shotgun or get left behind.
COOK: You look like you’re hard to work with.
DRIVER: Not if we understand each other.
COOK: What’s to understand?
By day, the Driver wears denim, doubles for film stunts, and works in an auto body shop for a guy named Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who seems to manage most of his gigs, and who now wants the Driver to race a car for which he persuades mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino Paolozzi (Ron Perlman) to front the cash. Meanwhile, the Driver is becoming friendly with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), but their budding conviviality is interrupted when Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison.
Debt-ridden Standard is soon assaulted by the Albanian gangster Cook (James Biberi), who threatens Irene and Benicio and demands Standard rob a pawn shop for the money he owes. When the Driver finds out, he offers Standard his services, but the heist goes horribly wrong, setting the Driver’s dual lives at odds and provoking him to commit what the New York Times’ A.O. Scott names, “acts of gruesomely violent chivalry.”
But are they? Names are important. “Violence has no meaning, it’s not enjoyable,” Refn told The Huffington Post. “Violence is like sex—it’s all about the buildup. It’s just a way to express emotions.” Violence in the service of love is still violence, and the inverse cannot be true. There are true lilies, and other flowers that bear the moniker. That which we call Mr. Bernie Rose by any other name would still smell as rotten (Brooks plays against type in Drive, but we’ll see later that such misnomers abound). And when it comes to types, the Driver transcends: no make, no model, and only a few identifiable markings, which, according to Roger Ebert, casts him as an existential antihero in the tradition of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name—a being defined entirely by his doing.
Where the rubber meets this road lies the rub, however. An existential hero defies the absurd by asserting his own singular purpose, but the Driver makes a living by accomplishing others’ purposes. By night, he’s paid to do what other men can’t (outmaneuver a police helicopter in a Chevy Impala, for example). This quasi-superheroism primes us to expect anything from him. By day, he’s paid to do what other men won’t (risk his life by driving recklessly on camera). For most of the film, whatever vehicle he’s driving is the only bridge between these extremes. Every time he slides behind the wheel, he’s going on a special trip, one that demands ritual, vestment, and congregation. The resulting chimera is so effective that even Gosling’s uncanny ability to embody a sort of delusional yet wholesome lone wolf (rewatch: The Notebook, Lars and the Real Girl, and Blue Valentine) is just for show. From the first frame we’re his Driver’s front-seat accomplices, primed to accept anything from him.
The film opens with the Driver overlooking Los Angeles from a high window, dressed to kill in that gaudy jacket, murmuring to a client on a burner phone. He stares at the city’s mystique, which we will see from a bird’s-eye view at various junctions, overlaid with velvet smog and synthpop. The extraordinary perspective casts Los Angeles—jeweled with freeways and buildings—as both this neo-noir’s femme fatale and a clever glyph for its protagonist. From up here, we’re as dazzled by him as he is by her, and we commit to hitching a ride with him. So we follow him out of what looks like a spartan motel room but turns out to be his apartment, watch him flick off the light and step onto the elevator. He has seduced, now he will ensnare. He has planned, but now he must act, and a Driver can’t act until he’s at street level.
For research, Refn and Gosling drove around Los Angeles at night, then did it again on film for real. Refn traces the city through anonymous intersections, dried-up washes, and parking structures. Paired with mundanities like the ubiquitous Impala, the sun-bleached pawn shop “in the valley,” the body shop full of broken car parts, and Irene’s predilection for dangerous dudes, these ordinary backdrops erode the Driver’s mystique. In vehicles and elevators, low Dutch angles and stark, shifting lights create tension and claustrophobia. Yet they highlight neither decadent settings nor violent showdowns but rather the Driver’s eerily cool demeanor. This digs a deep uncanny valley in our subconscious, cleaving reality and fantasy on every level. It’s as if the Driver can’t get to the Los Angeles he sees from his window, and we can’t get to whatever parts of him throw such a long shadow.
The Driver casts a mirage brawny enough that the other characters fall flat, their names and histories funhouse-mirrored in his fantasy. Irene (“peace”) invites pandemonium into her life. Benecio (“blessed”) pockets a curse, a golden bullet. Standard’s basic delinquency metastasizes into exceptional atrocity. Gangster Cook does mobster and restaurant owner Nino’s dirty work, and his double-crossing gives the Driver carte blanche to descend into ultraviolence. Opposing and intertwining with one another, Drive’s characters move together and apart, but the Driver stands without a true foil. Although he is neither a hard-boiled anti-hero whose shadow gets transmuted by love nor a bloodthirsty vigilante, he does wear both of those prosthetics for a while. As hyperreal as Schrödinger’s cat, he glitches through a series of archetypes, and Drive itself escapes characterization as easily as he escapes his various pursuers.
By the time Drive arrives at its microcosm—the infamous elevator scene, 70-some minutes in—we’ve had multiple opportunities to catch the Driver in his game, but it’s Irene’s first. They step into the elevator, already occupied by a hitman IMDb bills simply as “Tan Suit” (Jeff Wolfe, whose spade-shaped face and massive frame impose the atmosphere of a boss battle). The camera peeks under his normcore-colored lapel to reveal the cold hard fact of a gun. For time undefined the Driver hovers between his worlds, without the protection of an airbag or the control of a gear shift—a god. Then, unable to escape, he acts, seesawing wildly between eros and thanatos. Irene beholds him as he is, and he mirrors her horror with one of his most human expressions in the film: naked fear. Moments later, the scene ends with a close-up of the scorpion on the back of his jacket.
The fable of the Scorpion and the Frog warns us that it’s in the nature of some to harm others, even when it goes against their own interests. The Driver references it in a dark quip when he calls Bernie Rose after all the carnage to inform him they’re the only ones left standing. Bernie arranges their showdown, which takes place in an ornate Chinese restaurant and concludes chaos that began over disappointing Chinese takeout in a mobster’s storefront Italian joint.
It’s one of my favorite scenes in Drive, for nothing is as it appears. Obviously unsettled by his opponent, Rose tries to control him with a benevolent threat. “For the rest of your life, you’re going to be looking over your shoulder. I’m just telling you this because I want you to know the truth. But the girl is safe.” For his part, the Driver absorbs Rose’s speech in absolute silence, disguised as a romantic hero masking his devastation with stoicism. However, though it’s only at this moment that he is told the real-world consequences of his actions, he has already bid Irene farewell in a telephoned soliloquy. Sure, he might’ve had an inkling that Rose would propose the deal he did—might’ve valiantly decided to sacrifice future happiness for the good of a beautiful neighbor in need. But then I remember that the Driver’s a guy who shows more fear when a woman sees him as he is than when a group of faceless assailants with automatic weapons have him cornered in a motel room, and there I find him, hiding in the shadows between his two lives. Mere animal, only man.
Bernie Rose thought to name the Driver, but what he doesn’t know and we’re eager to forget is that inviting and then outmaneuvering the pursuit of others is already the Driver’s standard operating procedure. Driving smart, driving stylish, driving fast, driving for the movies—all of these necessitate frequent but brief glances in mirrors. Then, as soon as the objects that are closer than they appear move into your blind spot, you speed up or drop behind until all they can see are your lights, twinkling to pinpricks in the distance. Against such artifice there are few known weapons. In fact, even though Bernie stabs the Driver, and it seems a fatal blow, we understand with whatever vital organ both connects us to earth and propels us off it that he will not die. The Driver neither lives nor dies, because what he does seals him into fantasy.
Now, what can I tell you about fantasies? While writing this piece, I burned through the Drive soundtrack and various synthpop playlists, eventually stalling for longer than I care to admit on Marsheaux’s cover of Billy Idol’s inimitable “Eyes Without a Face.” For reasons that are now unclear to me, I believed it was this song, not the repeat of College’s “Real Hero,” that closes the film, and I wanted to filter my ideas through Idol’s lyrics.
I spend so much time
Believing all the lies
To keep the dream alive
Now it makes me sad
It makes me mad at truth
For loving what was you
(Les yeux sans visage)
Eyes without a face…
After enough listens key images from the film—Irene knocking on the Driver’s door, the Driver carrying a sleeping Benecio—began glitching through my mind, wearing this 2003 mask of a 1984 song inspired by a 1960 French horror film, all of which have little, if anything, to do with Drive. I’m one who sees ghosts in the hardware. Like many other early millennials, I spent the 1990s writing encoded messages on my family’s colossal Toshiba laptop with Wingdings. Everything confessed to the machine felt secret in a new way. We could represent ourselves however we wanted. Human error had apparently forever disappeared into networks of neon worlds we could observe through pristine pixelated windows. In the event of a breach, we could simply scrub everything and start over.