A Real Human Being?

It might sound weird, but occasionally I’ll see a film that I enjoy so much that I don’t want to write about it. At the end of the day, it seems as if a simple, “Go see this movie as soon as possible!” tweet or comment should suffice. This is how I felt about Drive. But in the couple of weeks that have passed since I watched, I have had a few lingering thoughts that I need to share…if to just get them out of my head and make better sense of them. Without a doubt, Drive has been one of my favorite films of the year.  The great thing about Drive is that it refuses to tell us almost as much as it tells us. The film “focuses” on Driver (we don’t even get a real name for Ryan Gosling‘s character), a young man who drives stunt cars in movies by day and get-away cars by night. He’s quiet and punctual (either side of the agreed upon time for you to do your job and you’re on your own). He develops a gentle friendship with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) who lives alone with her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). Their husband/father Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison…of course, for what we’re not exactly sure. When Standard is released from prison, he signs on for one last job for a mobster to get free of his debts. Driver agrees to help him out. Things go drastically wrong, and Driver finds himself more deeply involved with gangsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) than he had initially planned. Despite the risks, he plays it out to the bitter end to save Irene and Benicio from harm.

Driver (Ryan Gosling) develops an interesting relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan).

Unless you’re going in expecting non-stop action and over-the-top stunts, there’s a lot to love about Drive. First off is the mood and feel of the film, enhanced by both a cool (I use this description intentionally) cinematography and soundtrack. The frequent overhead shots of Los Angeles reminded me a lot of Collateral (2004). The ways in which cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel lingers on the actors, especially Gosling and Mulligan speaks volumes even as their characters so often remain mute thanks to Nicolas Winding Refn‘s direction and Hossein Amini‘s script. The soundtrack is catchy and speaks directly to the action on screen…more on that later. The performances are all perfect, especially Gosling who deserves an Oscar nod for his ability to show rather than tell. Bryan Cranston, as Driver’s sometime mechanic boss Shannon, reveals that he is equally at home on both the big and small screens. It’s always good to see Oscar Isaac on screen, even though he often plays smaller roles, as I’ve been intrigued by him since his performance as Joseph in The Nativity Story (2006). Albert Brooks is surprising, yet believable, in his turn as a likeable, yet menacing, mob partner to Perlman’s Nino, who is just brutal in his quest for some East Coast respect.

Even though there’s little action here, as I mentioned above, a key interest here for the filmmakers seems to be violence. While there’s not a lot of that either, compared to other crime, noir, or “car chase” films, the violence present in the film is, thankfully, unflinchingly realistic. Some of the violence comes from expected places like gangsters lashing out at people who might stand in their way. Some of it comes from characters being in the wrong place at the wrong time, e.g. Christina Hendricks‘ Blanche. Far more interesting are the sudden eruptions of violence from Driver, not because they are exceptionally graphic but because of what they reveal about and add to his personality. For the majority of the film, Driver keeps everything (his surroundings and personality) in check. But when they both get out of control, he reveals a volcanic level of violence that he’s been reining in for both his (perhaps) and Irene and Benicio’s benefit. If I can say this, the violence here is “good” because it is realistic, disturbing, and consequential. We see flowing blood, exploding skulls, and the like…most of which are conspicuously absent in most PG-13 or R-rated films.

There are a couple of theological/spiritual/religious avenues through which to approach this film. Of course, there’s the ever-present conversation about the battle between good and evil and the nature of each. However, the Drive‘s key spiritual/theological theme emerges from a consideration of the repetition of a key song throughout the soundtrack, College’s “A Real Hero.” The chorus of the song goes something like this:

You’ve proved to be a real human being

And a real hero

Part of the song seems to be about Sully Sullenberger’s efforts to save 155 people from a plane crash by landing safely in the Hudson River. In Drive, the song serves a different purpose. Clearly referring to Driver and his efforts to protect Irene and Benicio, the song takes on a completely different meaning. There can be no doubt that Driver is the real hero because he protects the damsel in distress and stands up to the bad guys in ways that mirror so many other hero films. The implication here, of course, is that Driver is also a “real human being” because he is a hero…because he has acted violently in a demanding situation. Read one way, we are human beings, victims and violators, because we are violent. Yet it is violence that threatens our humanity and the interconnectedness that is at the core of our fullest experiences of humanness.

Standard (Oscar Isaac) and Driver (Ryan Gosling) on the eve of destruction.

With its avoidance of cartoonish violence and the accompanying implications of heroism and humanity being bound up in violent actions, Driver also sheds light on the “dark side” of a frequent theological critique of many films and genres. There’s a tendency among many Christian critics and viewers of “hero” films to view the lead character, say Batman or Superman, as a Christ figure. The problem is, the great majority of these characters are almost always violent and consistently so. This is something that Jesus never was, and, unless you subscribe to Mark Driscoll’s theology, something that the Christ is not. There could be the temptation her to view Driver as something of a Christ figure: he’s an outsider, mysterious, his arrival is inexplicable, he defends the vulnerable, he (potentially) sacrifices himself. But his treatment of his enemies, and most importantly the way in which those actions are portrayed in the film, both finds the comparison wanting and should shed light on the problematic comparisons that are so often made in other films.

These are potentially fruitful discussions to be sure, but the pleasure of experiencing Drive lies far more in watching and listening to it than in talking about it…kind of like Driver himself.

Drive (100 mins.) is rated R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity and is in theaters everywhere.