Hey Girl, Ryan Gosling Plays a Psychopath in Drive
I watched Drive a couple of weeks ago and found it to be a fascinating film about a culture-bound psychopath. I’d say this interpretation is a cryptic one, but that wouldn’t be true — rather, his psychopathy disguises itself by adhering to cinematic ideas about strong, silent heroes. This raises some interesting questions about whether that kind of hero is a moral figure, but let’s skip that for a sec. and talk about the Kid (or Driver — he doesn’t have a name).
The Kid swims effortlessly through two connected worlds — crime and film making — because he adheres to a strict set of rules and forms no attachments beyond the purely pragmatic. He’s wading in Man With No Name territory except that his life is an excessively patterned, settled one. The Driver has a decent apartment and a part time job as a mechanic working for Shannon (Bryan Cranston’s character). Shannon likes him but can’t really call him a friend — every attempt at camaraderie rings hollow, unnecessarily adorning an fundamentally exploitive bond.
The Driver adheres to a strict work ethic designed to sever connections to the people he does bank jobs with. He gives you five minutes and drive time, period. A more charitable interpretation of his ethos might be that he’s afraid of attachment and the movie forces him to change, but I see this as his way of protecting other people from himself for paradoxically selfish reasons.
The Kid seems self-aware enough to understand that there’s something wrong with him. All of his relationships are selfish, rule-bound ones not because there’s a vulnerable, emotional man deep inside, but because there isn’t. He knows that if he exploited other people without restraining himself he’d probably get into trouble. He sticks to people who nobody really cares about: crooks he drives for, replaceable film production people, and Shannon, a guy who’s basically a serf for mob overlords. He does it for the same reason that other psychopaths prey on disadvantaged members of society, and I get the sense that the only reason the Driver isn’t murdering prostitutes is that sex doesn’t interest him. His psychopathy happens to be tuned to selfish joy through driving, and a loose connection to the idea of being a hero that tightens as the film progresses even as it reveals the perversity of calling it “heroism.”
Gosling plays the Driver with an asexuality that some people might confuse with virtue. He meets Irene when she has car trouble — a trigger for his basic interest in cars that mixes him up with her family. His most visible emotional moments actually concern Benicio, her son. They stand out as the only convincing examples of the Driver’s empathy. He gets more involved with neighbours when Benicio’s father Standard comes back, troubled with criminal ties. You might confuse this with compassion, but it looks more like a failing mask of sanity mixed up with that thread of interest in Benicio. Irene, Benicio and Standard hand the Driver a way to escalate his behaviour — he discovers and increasingly fulfils a fetish for heroism.
(Standard is an interesting character, by the way. He comes off as an aggressive asshole when he feels threatened by the Kid’s intrusion into the family but he loves his son, and inasmuch as he is a fuckup, he’s a normal — “standard” human being, with real emotions beyond self-satisfaction. In fact, his fear of the Driver might be driven less by jealously, and more by an accurate sense of what kid of man he’s dealing with.
You know Standard’s going to die. The Driver knows that too, and that the right push will trigger a heroic narrative, allowing him to exploit the situation for the sake of his Man With No Name fetish. Sure enough, events unfold that allow him to display his syndrome.
Despite the fact that he’s never been a stickup man or anything of that sort, the Kid is disturbingly good at violence. He lacks the empathy required to hesitate before caving someone’s skull in or get distracted by the social prelude to an ambush. He exudes quiet charisma, but doesn’t know how to talk to people. Leaving aside plot-driven factors, he fails at negotiating with crooks before, during and after the job because he doesn’t have a great handle on their motivations. When you think of people as insects, it’s hard to figure out what they want, but easier to crush them.
The Kid unveils his true nature when he says:
You know the story about the scorpion and the frog? Your friend Nino didn’t make it across the river.
The Kid’s jacket foreshadows this. He’s been carrying the scorpion from the beginning. He’s not the only one.
As the film progresses, the mob’s psychopath weds his arc to the Driver’s. That figure, Bernie, is the Kid’s parallel, similarly devoted to to an stock image — that of the mob hit man — with the same love of excellence, routine and props. The Driver’s jacket and gloves constitute a uniform that stays the same even when his car and face change. Bernie’s keeps his amoral identity-fetish in a display case of weapons. They’re both Hollywood Psychopaths who have channelled their desires along movie stereotypes. These act as camouflage. Nobody knows how dangerous the Kid really is, and local mobsters underestimate Bernie’s ruthlessness — particularly, his ability to kill without the near-ritual scheming others use to justify themselves and affirm their identities (as signalled when Nino talks about being respected).
Actually, let’s get back to the Driver’s mask. Early in the movie he gets a latex mask to wear while he’s stunt driving for a particular picture. Later on, he wears it as a disguise when he kills Nino, but that doesn’t make sense as a pragmatic choice. First of all, he never really exposes himself to witnesses, mask or not. Second, he wears the same clothes — including the distinctive scorpion jacket. Third, he’s killing Nino anyway, and doesn’t need to worry about him blathering. In fact, he even tells Bernie he did it despite the fact that it would have been trivial to make it look like an accident. I think the film is telling us that the Kid’s face — his conventional identity as a human being — doesn’t matter. By blanking his face, the Kid’s mask is ant anti-disguise that makes his jacket and gloves more prominent, and the murder a true expression of his real nature.
Drive ends with a weak, ambiguous opportunity for redemption. Bernie lets Irene and Benicio go, and the Driver gives him the money knowing that Bernie will try to kill him. I say it’s ambiguous because that final scene has the air of a ritual. Both of these guys affirm what they’re all about as a professional gangster and nameless hero, respectively, so it can also be read as pure indulgence — if it were something else, there might be an ambush or no-show instead, particularly since Bernie never needs to talk to the Kid to keep his promise. He could shoot him, take the money and stay away from the family.
As the Kid drives away and fully claims the rootless nature of a Man With No Name, a song drones that might be true or ironic:
Back against the wall and odds
With the strength of a will and a cause
Your pursuits are called outstanding
You’re emotionally complex
Against the grain of dystopic claims
Not the thoughts your actions entertain
And you have proved to be
A real human being and a real hero
Real human being and a real hero
Real human being and a real hero
Real human being and a real hero
Real human being