The horror lingers and seeps; the feelings are sponged away.” — Anthony Lane, “Road Kill” The New Yorker September 26, 2011
In the opening, he's driving. It's all enigma: his name, his expression, his past, his destination, his life. At the film's close, he's driving. And he's wounded, maybe fatally. He's been stabbed. But we know more now, not his name, his past, his destination, his life. But we know more about the opening. He's driving. And he's wounded, maybe fatally. The wound is in the psyche, and it reveals itself throughout the movie, which parallels the way we are wounded now and the enigma of a world of digital speed and violence in which our "feelings are sponged away."
The way Refn's "we" are now goes beyond Durkheim's anomie, the individual drifting away from the anchor of social norms and moral notions, a "rule that is a lack of a rule." In the world of Drive we get the sense that rules were never known and therefore there is no way to live in their absence. Both presence and absence have left the scene and left no one with a sense of loss. No one is "driving by night" in a film noir fashion against the hard dispensations of Fate. No one is brought to a hard look at their own mortality and find in that a necessary "grace under pressure" in order to survive. Existentially. Our Driver is in a world in which everything has been forgotten, including the deep affective attachments to the world that we store because we cannot lose them, because we value them. A human life is so composed.
The magnetism of a romantic drifter who rides — that is, drives — into town spins wildly when our Driver smashes to pulp a gunsel who threatens the Driver's own discovery (rediscovery?) of love and attachment. We know then that he has always been dangerous, even as he playfully worked a toothpick in the corner of his mouth; we drew upon the soft, beguiling, and mysterious countenance a humanity that he never possessed.
We go back and see him again, piecing together the story we have missed: now we see that he has none of what is needed to be human, is oblivious to that loss, and, in effect, drives through and over our surprise, our horror, our incomprehension. It seems to us that he has suddenly become pathologically violent, but perhaps he has always been that. But perhaps too his estrangement from the world has prevented, preempted any violent clash with it. And now, for some reason, his detached arrangement with the world has been broken. This can only be so if our Driver has become attached to someone who promises to bring him back into the world. What threatens that love incites his violence. He will not lose her.
The threshold of a new Eden: consider that the Driver as a new Adam is heading for a new entrance into what grows into a new world for him, a new world with a new Eve, Carey Mulligan's sweet-faced Irene. The apple she holds out to him is love and happiness, through first an attachment to her and her son; then to her ex-con husband, Standard; then to a mission to hold onto that attachment by helping the husband; and then, finally, when help fails, protecting Irene and her son from mob vengeance. The dramatic course of these connections becomes increasingly more violent, but in the beginning there is a pure and silent aura, a loveliness that persists even in the strangest circumstances.
I see all of this as a mythic dream, one that is powerful enough to encompass such strangeness, one powerful enough to start the world all over again. Within this mythic time, a wounded Driver no longer drives through the world but now can make even improbable connections with others because he loves. It must be a great temptation that pulls the Driver off the road, to incite him to care, to put him on a road that goes someplace, a road that leads to his own salvation, to the purging of his wounds. The charisma of Irene's smile defies and denies the presence of being without affect, of the Driver continuing to be what he is.
Outside the gates of Eden, the Driver now has to stop and deal with the darkness he chose to drive through, a fallen world that could have been redeemed for him if he did not have already inside him a share of that darkness. It's a particular kind of darkness, a new and puzzling kind of darkness, one in which a bad guy like Bernie Rose, played against type by Albert Brooks, likes to talk, unlike our Driver. Bernie narrates, and he seems a very reliable narrator, the kind that suits a fallen world. He once made movies critics said were very European, but he thought "they were shit." A realist without illusions. This is not standard in a world in which the illusions of self-empowerment and "will it and it will come" saturate every American audience. Bernie narrates the bad luck life of Shannon, the Driver's "mentor," as if he were making a pitch for a movie, as if he had thirty seconds to make us know his character and want to do the film. The voice is soft, the eyes crinkled, the manner engaging, sinuous, a different kind of beguiling than Irene's.
The devil wears a mask; Bernie will pick up a fork and plunge it into a man's eyes, pick up a chef's knife and hack at his throat. Bernie will shake your hand, hold it so he can run a straight razor across the arteries and gently tell you not to fight, that "it's over, it's over." And as it is destined in a fallen world, in a world the Driver was driving through until he met a girl with a beguiling smile, Bernie and our Driver will embrace in a flurry of stabbings, in the embrace of deadly and brutal violence that always seeps through. For this is not Eden.
In this fallen world, no amount of brutality has impact; what should have a strong effect has no effect. And it is because the emotional responses we should have "are sponged away," in film critic Anthony Lane's view, by Refn's "refusing to look away from the minutiae of nastiness" that Lane concludes that Refn, the man behind the film, "can't drive." If, however, Refn's observation of us and our world is that emotional responses have already fallen away, are already as we see them in our Driver, then Lane's criticism is grounded in Eden and Refn's in the world after Eden, the world, unfortunately, that we are in.
There has been a long line of taciturn, detached, strangely charismatic anti-heroes, some riding a horse like Clint Eastwood's the Man with No Name, or some driving a car, like Steve McQueen's Bullitt, or brandishing a sword like Mifune's samurai, or riding a Harley like Brando "Wild One." They are detached from heroism in a world in which good and evil have run into each other like watercolor paints and who the hero is and who the villain is cannot be clearly distinguished. Now imagine a world in which a certain and naïve picture of villains and heroes and what they stand for as well as a skeptical and rebellious picture of all that is "sponged away." Whatever had been thought, felt, written, expressed becomes almost overnight extinct, and, further, there is no personal interest in retrieving it because the world is now only what you are interested in making of it. The world, in short, begins when you begin.
In the beginning he is driving and in the end he is driving. Wounded.