Hey folks (or folk, depending on how many people actually read this column). Due to academic obligations and some family stuff that went down recently, today’s post is going to be a short one. Furthermore, since part of my grad school research is devoted to gender issues in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn, I decided to look at one of the most shocking and incredible sequences in what I believe is Refn’s best movie. So let’s get to it, and take a look at a great moment from the stylish and thoroughly engrossing Drive (2011).
Ryan Gosling plays the Driver, a stuntman and mechanic who moonlights as a wheelman for bank robbers and other criminal types. One day, he has a meet-cute with his attractive neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), and they strike up a touching relationship that sets the hyper-masculine Driver on a path toward reclaiming his repressed humanity. Unfortunately, Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaacs), is still in the picture, and when he is released from prison, he comes between Irene and the Driver.
Meanwhile, the Driver’s partner, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), wants to invest in a race car, and wants the Driver behind the wheel. Shannon lacks the funds to buy the car, however, so he approaches the ruthless loan shark Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his wannabe gangster flunkie, Nino (Ron Perlman). It turns out that Standard is actually in debt to Bernie, so the Driver agrees to help Standard do one last heist that will clear the debt. Unbeknownst to either Standard or the Driver, though, the heist is actually a set-up by Nino and his thugs, and it was a way take both Standard and the Driver out of the picture. Finding himself backed up against a wall, the Driver must now suppress his newfound humanity to wage a ruthless and bloody war against his attackers, all while protecting Irene and Benicio from the ruthless Bernie Rose and his minions.
Late in the film, the Driver approaches Irene and offers to give her the money that he got from the botched heist with Standard. Irene rebuffs the Driver, and to get away from him, she steps into the elevator of their apartment complex. However, a shady character is lingering at the back of the elevator, so the Driver follows Irene onto the elevator and situates himself between her and the guy who appears to be waiting for her. As the song “Oh My Love” by Riz Ortolani swells on the soundtrack, the lighting dims and the Driver and Irene share a passionate kiss in slow motion. The moment lingers as the song builds, and the audience is lulled into a sense of serenity.
Then, as quickly as the moment began, the spell is broken, and the Driver grabs the other man by the back of his neck and slams his head against the wall of the elevator. The man tries to pull a gun, but the Driver knocks it away and wrestles the guy to the floor. The Driver stands over his fallen foe, and then proceeds to stomp the man’s face into oblivion. Irene is shocked by the violence she has just witnessed. When the elevator reaches the parking garage, she stumbles out of the elevator and stares in horror at the Driver, who merely looks back at her in silence. It is as if the Driver is saying good-bye not only to Irene, but to his very humanity, since she was the one thing in the world that was allowing the Driver to repress his hypermasculinity and become a real human being.
The sequence is shocking in its violence, but it is also beautiful and poetic. The kiss shared by the Driver and Irene is tender and powerfully touching, and is made all the more touching by the extreme act of violence that follows it. Drive has a reputation for being a violent film, but outside of a handful of extremely brutal sequences, the film is more of an meditative and stylish character study that focuses on a hypervirile character who is trying to reclaim a sense of humanity. The Driver’s relationship with Irene was his one shot at being a real human being (as the soundtrack reminds the viewer), and the kiss they share is bittersweet since it is basically the Driver saying good-bye to both her and his humanity. He is abandoning his humanity in order to protect the woman he loves, but it is also the very violent and aggressive masculinity that allows him to protect her that makes it impossible for them to be together.
That knowledge makes the moment on the elevator both beautiful and heartbreaking, and makes the violence that follows it appear to be even more shocking and painful. Not just for the Driver’s victim, but for the viewer, who has been made to sympathize with the Driver up to that point, but now sees that he is filled with a violent rage that separates him from humanity. It is a righteous and cathartic moment that also drives home the point that this type of violent and aggressive masculinity is something that can destroy relationships, as well as end lives.
This realization is what gives the sequence its power, and what makes it a great moment in cinema.