Nicholas Winding Refn's latest film, "Drive" puts a modern spin on some once beloved and often overlooked Hollywood genres. While car chases haven't really gone anywhere, we haven't seen a good Driver movie in some time. The Nameless "Driver" (Ryan Gosling) recalls Steve McQueen's Bullitt and Kowalski in "The Vanishing Point" and more recently Stunt Man Mike in Tarantino's Grindhouse send up, "Death Proof" The Driver comes from a long but neglected tradition and he carries it on with his competency and his scorpion racing jacket as an emblem. Driver doesn't have much of a social life (or skills) and divides his time between stunt driving for the movies, working for his friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) at his garage, and doing sidejobs as a driver for criminals. He has a strict code for his moonlighting activities and we first meet him conducting a side job. Driver sells the criminals a "five minute window." He'll pull up to whatever place they plan to hold up and give them five minutes. Should anything occur within that five minutes, he's "with them all the way." but before or after they're "on their own." On his first job in the film, we see him easily outwit the police while escorting his customers away from a robbery. He's ready for anything including the police chopper. He doesn't use guns or get involved in any way however, other than driving.
Shannon seems to serve as Driver's employer/manager, and assistant, giving Driver legitimate employment at the garage and setting up stunt driving gigs. He also outfits the cars that Driver needs for his side jobs. Shannon however, has ties to a local crime figures Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) We see him asking Bernie for $400,000.00 which Shannon needs to buy a car to get Driver into professional racing. Bernie is skeptical, reminding Shannon that there are plenty of good race cars and crews already out there. Shannon explains that it isn't the car so much as it is the Driver that matters. After seeing Driver do a test run around a track, they come to an agreement. Bernie stretches out his hand to Driver for a handshake, but Driver says "My hands are a little dirty." Bernie counters "That's Ok. Mine are too."
At the garage Bernie explains to Driver how he and Shannon got acquainted. Apparently Shannon set up cars for B movies that Bernie produced. He also overcharged, which Bernie says he didn't mind. Shannon then tried the same thing on Nino, Bernie's associate, and found that Nino did mind, which cost Shannon a broken hip. Driver doesn't seem moved by the uderlying urgency in this story, When Bernie asks if he's ready to win some races, Driver says "I hope so."
Standard appears sincere in his repentance, grateful for a second chance. However, he is soon badly beaten by thugs in front of Benecio. Driver happens on the scene finding Standard bloodied, and learns that he owes protection money from his prison term, which is getting raised every day. He's being pressured to rob a pawnshop, to even things up, which he doesn't want to do. They have also promised to come after his family next. Driver agrees to help and goes with Standard to meet Cook (James Biberi) the man behind the beatings and threats to Standard's family. Cook has another person, Blanche (Christina Hendricks) picked out to help with the job. Of course the job goes badly, and Driver ends up with a million dollars in a duffel bag, forced to sort things out. We find he is as good at hurting and killing as he is at driving.
Driver is of course the classic loner, his rituals and spartan needs, giving him a lot in common with Jef Costello in "Le Samourai" and many other hitmen such as George Clooney's character in "The American." For all we know, Driver once was a hitman. Shannon tells us that five years ago, he just appeared out of nowhere and asked for a job. Driver's awkward social skills certainly suggest some isolation from the rest of the world, and he can stomp a man's face under his boot until there's no head left, without missing a beat. But we don't know for sure, and in this movie, he is not a hit man simply the Driver. We learn that his brief interactions with Irene and Benecio meant more to him than we might have imagined. We don't know where Driver came from, or even what he wants. Money seems trivial to him. Where a hitman has a set objective driver does not, at least until Irene and Benecio's safety is in question. He attempts to solve things the easiest way possible, by simply returning the money, but this is of course not possible, and he knows it and arranges accordingly.
Nicholas Winding Refn borrows from the car and driver movies, and noir movies, mixed with the style of Asian action films, but this always feels like his own film. His awareness of the genres he's working with is obvious, and he clearly loves where his film comes from. The Driver is an impossible character, the guy who comes from nowhere with exactly the right skills to take care of a certain situation. He has no name, no motives, he's just a force waiting to be set loose. He acts like a hitman but he isn't a hit man. He doesn't seem intent on standing outside of humanity, he just doesn't know how to relate to it. Given the chance, he seems overjoyed at the prospect.
He isn't surprised however, when it proves to be transitory. He's the Driver after all. He's all about passing through, the journey not the destination. With his methodical nature and rituals, it's clearly important that he passes through the right way though, as winning and losing seem to mean very little to him. The Driver who begins the film as little more than a personified function learns a little about being a human being (as is heavily reinforced by the soundtrack) on the way. He's not out to live or die, he just drives, but that doesn't keep him from caring enough to get attached, although it isn't in his nature to stop for very long. That doesn't mean he can't look out the window and wonder, what if he could?
We don't know however, how things will turn out for the Driver. He's the mysterious right man in the right place at the right time, but he comes across as human enough, in a similar way to Charles Bronson's Bishop character in the Mechanic. We know he's the best, but we don't think he's invulnerable. We're not even sure if he wants to live. When he has a job he has to see it concluded. The money is a very small part of that. Perhaps it's enough that for a moment he got to see his own humanity before driving away.