Thursday, January 26, 2012

Drive -- moral ambiguity and gratuitous violence

Director: Nicolas Refn, 2011. (R) 

The opening scene is a car chase through the dark streets of Los Angeles. The Driver (Ryan Gosling, Crazy, Stupid Love) tells the two robbers, before letting them out for the robbery, “If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down. I don’t carry a gun. . . . I drive.” Offering no margin for error, Driver has his own set of morals. Yet, as we will explore, one of the themes of Drive is moral ambiguity, and the film itself enters into the realm of genre ambiguity.

Marketed as a thriller, Drive is modern film noir with themes of crime doesn’t pay and bad choice eventually catch up with you. But the unnamed protagonist, only referred to as Driver or Kid throughout, is a sweet-avenger with a gentle voice, not a typical macho noir hero. Yet, it resembles just as much a modern Western, bringing to mind Clint Eastwood’s "Man with No Name" trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, etc). Like Eastwood’s character in those spaghetti westerns Driver is the strong, silent type, a solitary figure with a sardonic smile. Alienated from others, he has no emotional links, he owns little and keeps to himself.

Drive gives us no backstory on Driver or any of the characters in the film. There is only present, no past and ultimately no future. Driver never focuses on the past, never analyzes his actions in the present. It is almost symptomatic of our current age where living for the now is the epitome. Nothing else matters.

The initial chase puts Driver’s skills on display: his oneness with his car, his acute sense of the presence of the police, and his absolute calmness in the presence of danger. Throughout he refuses conversation. He has one focus: the job. Later we learn that Driver works by day as a mechanic in a garage for Shannon (Bryan Cranston) who also gets him gigs as a Hollywood stunt driver. Shannon also gets him the gigs as a getaway driver by night, for crooks he does not know and never meets again. We never know why he lives this life of crime; he does not need the money, as he seems to have littler consumerist tendencies and no obvious future planning.

When Driver runs into Irene (Carey Mulligan, An Education) and her young son, his emotional hardness is pierced and his barriers fall. With her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), in prison, she needs help. As he comes to her aid as a savior, he begins an unexpected relationship. Long quiet drives deepen their platonic friendship. Her innocence contrasts with his brokenness and may provide the reason why he protects her in a messianic fashion.

Meanwhile, Shannon gets into a shady relationship with two mobsters played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. They agree to fund his idea of buying a stock-car that Driver will race. But getting into bed with the devil is a bad idea, and will come back to haunt a person.

When Standard gets out of prison, thugs come looking for him: he owes cash, lots of cash. Seeking to help Irene, Driver offers to do one last job with Standard, to get him out from under his debt. Of course, this job goes wrong, horribly wrong, and Driver finds himself with a duffel bagful of cash being hunted by hit men.

Having just spent a weekend in a coaching class, I was struck by one scene. When Driver finds Standard beaten and bloody, he stands facing him and asks him what happened. He listens quietly. When Standard finishes his explanation, Driver pauses to think, then asks, “So, what are you going to do about it?” Such attentive listening and focused questioning, helping the person to look inside for answers to his own problems is the definition of co-active coaching. It’s a great summation.

The first act is actually slow and quiet. Driver and Irene make little conversation, they mostly communicate through gazing at each other. With a synth-laden soundtrack, and a hot pink font for the credit’s typography, the film is sleek and stylish, oozing visual flair. And then with a suddenness that shocks, Nicolas Refn brings on the violence. From the first shotgun killing to the fork in the eye, the violence is gory and over-the-top, brutal and bloody. With each new killing, Refn ups the stakes and amplifies the graphic nature of the bloody scene. And it is unnecessary. Indeed, its gratuitous nature becomes an affront to the audience.

This theme of violence highlights the cyclical nature of violence. Greg Garrett, professor of English and author of  The Gospel According to Hollywood (a book on film and culture), comments, in his blog review on Drive, on the impact of violence:
In pop culture, our Christ figures - whether they are Neo in The Matrix or The Preacher in Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider - employ violence to save innocents, and that understanding informs what we do as a nation. Executing criminals, torturing terrorists, bombing opposing nations-we are believers that violence can solve problems, perhaps because, at least in the short run, it does.
But violence has its costs. When we employ violence against others it results in more violence, usually of a greater kind, as Refn shows. Garrett goes on to say,
If there is a positive Jesus-y message from the film, it clearly cannot be about the efficacy of violence. As Martin Luther King preached in Strength to Love, ‘Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.’ A stage littered with bodies is always the sign that we are watching a tragedy.
Driver wears an iconic satin bomber jacket thoughout, one that bears a scorpion on the back. This jacket provides a two-fold metaphor. What started as white and shiny becomes splattered with blood after one killing. Metaphorically, the cost of violence is displayed on his back. Figuratively, this points us back to the words of Isaiah (1:18): ““Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” We all wear dirty robes, and we cannot clean them ourselves. Driver does not clean his jacket once stained. Yet there is one in life whose clothing is unstained. The Old Testament prophet Daniel pointed out, “As I looked, ‘thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow’ .” (Dan. 7:9) This one is Jesus. He is a true Messiah, and he offers to cleanse us. Another prophet beautifully painted this picture, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.” (Zech. 3:4)

The second metaphor stems from a story Driver relates in a phone conversation referring to “the scorpion and the toad” tale. In the story, the toad carries the scorpion across the river. But the scorpion stings the toad and both drown. When asked why by the toad, the scorpion replied that “it’s my nature”. Driver is the scorpion. It is his nature to kill. It is his nature to be alone, disengaged. But in reality, our true nature is found only in Jesus, where he gives us a new nature (2 Cor. 5:17), one that resembles what God originally intended for humanity from the beginning. Our broken and corrupt nature we are born with pulls us to sin and self, leading to crime. But unlike the scorpion or Driver, we can change; we can be changed if we turn to Jesus.

This brings us back to the theme of moral ambiguity and Driver’s initial quotation. Driver had his own moral code. He used it to control, himself and others. He left no margin for error. He carried no guns and was determined not to shoot anyone. These morals seemed upright, until you see that they don’t prevent him from carrying out crime. Moreover, he is willing to stomp or stab someone to death but won’t shoot them. There is a paradox; there is ambiguity. His morals were relative, self-determined, baseless. A proverb says, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12). Man-made morals are like this. They seem right, but they are ultimately wrong, deadly wrong. In contrast, moral perspicuity comes from centering a life on God, following Jesus. He laid out his ethic in the classic Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-8), but it can be summarized succinctly, as he does in his upper room discourse (Jn. 13-17): “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn. 13:34).

Drive is sleek yet superficial. Ultimately, it is as empty as its protagonist. It spills gallons of blood leaving a dozen or so dead bodies on its path, but offers no solutions, just the reminder of the graphic cost of violence. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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