Bright Lights Film Journal

Grounded in the World after Eden: On Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive

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."

Of course, the "world" and the "we" are Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's extrapolations of the U.S. and Americans. The nature of the Driver's wounds may be a reflection of an increasingly insensible, uncivil, sundered American society, but anger in this film is not directed at the affectless but at the fallen world they have inherited. There is a two-edged enigma here: the enigma of the Driver whose Zen-like aloofness masks a dark and deep brutality, and the enigma of the world he drives through, which seems at once deceitful, anesthetized, and serpentine — and yet this world suddenly puts him on the threshold of a new Eden.

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.

Our Driver, however, is composed differently, as if civilization had been washed away or lost, as if any historical legacy, moral imperatives, social and civic protocols, human ideals and aspirations, and so on were something yet to be discovered, to be learned. There is no racial memory or historical memory in our Driver's phenomenal world. We are not shown what has brought him to this state, but somehow we accept his detachment as justified, his withdrawal as worthy of our attention. He has made an arrangement with the world we are in: he will drive through, earn by tending the autos that drive through, don a mask and drive for the movies, and then return to his apartment. He has no online life, no Facebook friends, and his offline life, somehow alien, haunting, and yet intriguingly different, attracts.

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.

The strangest circumstances: For instance, the Driver and Irene fall in love, but the only representation of this are scenes in which the Driver and her son watch TV, or the three of them drive along a flood control canal and then spend an idyllic time by a small pond, or she touches his hand as he drives. This is Edenic romance, no rough sex, no violation or violence, no lust in her eyes or his. And then the husband is out of jail and there is a party. The husband, Standard, avows to his friends that he, in essence, foolishly sinned and will sin no more and hopes for a new future with his family. Irene will re-enlighten the world for all her family. But Standard's eyes are always the eyes of a man deeply troubled and perplexed, a man caught up in past actions, in a past that will return and finish him. This is the sort of attachment that is standard for us all, the attachments we build up as we are caught by and not driving through the world. The Driver is free of these both in his mind and in his memory-less life. And yet Standard, this man who recognizes that the Driver is Irene's "friend," welcomes the Driver into his family. And even more strangely, the Driver now accepts this role as friend to all three, as part of a family. Irene smiles as if the thought of these two men who love her eventually fighting for her does not matter because it will never come to that, they will never descend to any level of violence. She has no premonition of a fall. The love and all the solidarity it promises are too tempting to resist.

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.

It did not turn out well in Genesis, and it does not turn out well here. As the Driver stomps a man's head into pulp and Irene watches, her smile disappears and turns to horrified recognition. The elevator doors close, and what was a new beginning falls apart.

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.

Outside the gates of Eden – call it Irene's apartment, Irene's expression – the Driver has to face Bernie's myrmidons who come for him, who pursue him on his arena, the road. And here the Driver drives Nino, played by an actor whose face is like a gargoyle mask, whose being is as darkly imagined as a myrmidon, into the sea, most probably the place from which this monster has emerged, the sea to which all monsters return. The film's audience is also drawn into the movie as affectless spectators who remain seated, bare-breasted strippers, as the Driver threatens to drive a bullet into a Nino underling's eye.

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.

Such a world without society, without attachments, will soon devolve into an atavistic world of Bernies and Ninos, as well as a world of pristine souls who are trapped and don't belong, like Irene, and, doubtlessly also, a world of those who hope to drive through, as wary and frightened of what they have become as they are of what the world around them has become. One driver, our Driver, comes upon a bright opening, a possible refuge, a rest stop that may be permanent. But in the end, it cannot be his, and whether there was ever real promise in Irene's smile or only temptation, we cannot know. What she promises is a return that he cannot make.

In the beginning he is driving and in the end he is driving. Wounded.