An Analysis of the Movie Drive (2011, Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston)

Editor’s note: I caught this over Netflix the other night. While I enjoyed the soundtrack and the pacing and the way it looked, I thought it was a terrible film overall. I then read what Mischief Maker had to say about it a few months ago. I gained an appreciation for Drive.

There are spoilers for Drive here. Please see the film first. — ICJ

The Scorpion and the Frog

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”

The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”

Replies the scorpion: “It’s my nature…”

It’s no accident that Walter White from Breaking Bad is in this movie. It’s a film all about fantastic plans laid waste by people making self-destructive choices that it’s their nature to take. Just about everyone in the cast is a frog or a scorpion at one point or another, but the Driver is the primary scorpion setting the conflict in motion, and Albert Brooks is the primary Frog whose mutually beneficial plans with the Driver are ruined. Kind of like, and I wish I could think of a better example but I cant, Robert DeNiro’s consummate professional criminal in “Heat” who has a chance to make a clean getaway from Pacino for good and start a new life with Felicity, but can’t leave a string untied in his criminal life and ends up losing everything and getting killed at the end.

As he says, “I’m a Driver, I drive.” That’s the only time in his life that he’s completely at home and in his nature. Do a death defying flip for a measly $500? No problem. Strike up a conversation with his pretty next-door neighbor? He only manages that by getting manipulated into it by Bryan Cranston, and you get the feeling that Cranston’s story that the Driver gave no argument to working for half wages in his auto shop wasn’t just a humorous exaggeration.

At the start of the film he has grand plans going into effect. He’s going to be a race car driver working with his friend Cranston and financed by Brookes. He has a burgeoning relationship with his pretty neighbor and her son. Then her ex-con husband comes back. Everything about the guy spells trouble and the pretty neighbor is constantly dropping anvil-subtle hints that she’d be happy if he was back in jail or otherwise gone from their lives. The Driver comes across the ex-con lying in a bloody mess in the parking garage and tasked with doing a robbery that couldn’t more obviously be a set up than if they also told the ex-con to wear a bulls-eye T-shirt on the job.

Like the scorpion on the river, all the Driver has to do is refrain from acting on his nature and he and everyone he cares about wins. He doesn’t, his nature is that he drives and he signs on to take part in the doomed heist even as the pretty neighbor gives him rueful looks while her ex-con husband makes friendly with the Driver.

After the job goes south and for the remainder of the movie, the Driver is lost and out of his element. While he’s cool as a cucumber evading police helicopters, he’s shaking and terrified as he menaces a thug with a hammer. His only wish at this point is to get out of this uncomfortable situation as quickly as possible, to the point that Ron Perlman says to him during their brief telephone negotiation, “you’re not very good at this, are you?” Yeah, the stunt mask looks totally fake and doesn’t get put to great use, but it’s a talisman of the world he knows and the confidence it provides is why he seeks it out rather than a better disguise. Of course he didn’t know to take off his bloody jacket in the Chinese Restaurant. If you’re wondering why none of the waiters or patrons seem to notice, then repeat to yourself, “it’s just a show” and you really should just relax.

But almost everyone is a scorpion at one point or another. Ron Perlman places the entire empire he and Brookes have built together in jeopardy because it’s not in his nature to take any gruff from anyone, even if they’re the Italian Mob. Cranston got his pelvis broken for trying to cheat a gangster but he’s still trying to hustle them to the end. Etc. Like Brookes said to Cranston, it was just bad luck that put the scorpions in their lives in positions where their natures ruined their shared dream of a racing team. The Driver isn’t autistic or retarded, his flaws are just put under the biggest microscope in the film.

And so the final image is of him bleeding to death, the frog killed by his hand, and sitting behind the wheel, partaking in the nature that drove him to ruin.

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