There is no meditative practice as powerful as night driving. Neon city lights bleed into a sky that surrounds you like a dark shell. You are one with your car, armored as you speed down a lonely street, your focus on the road immediately ahead and the hard-candy glitter of your dashboard instruments. There is a sensation of total freedom, and with it, a lurking, terrifying thrill: Thanatos, the death drive. You know that you could be pulverized at any moment.
When Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive begins, our hero The Driver aids and abets a robbery. There is tension in his otherwise stoic face until he has eluded the cops, abandoned the getaway car and returned to his own ride. High above Los Angeles’s freeways at night, the city’s central nervous system, headlights tracing its pathways like neurons firing: this is where we finally see The Driver at ease, experiencing this singular zen, anonymous in his Chevy among the other denizens of the road.
Drive is existential neo-noir that wears its nostalgia for old American car culture on its ivory satin sleeve. It evokes all the old magic: racing, the car chase, stunt driving, customization, the allure of the open road and the diners found alongside it, all satisfying the American impulse to wander, to find new frontiers.
During the heyday of car culture, there was camaraderie among men, friendly competition, the ability to express one’s identity. The American dream’s promise of happiness seemed within reach, from the post-WWII boom of the auto industry until the death of the muscle cars in the 1970s. A car was visual shorthand for the American dream, an object greater than the sum of its parts: it offered redemption, transformation, the chance to become more than you are.
Cars nowadays are divested of personality. Cool design has given way to practicality and environmental friendliness. We lost the muscle car in the early ‘70s to higher costs for insurance and gasoline and stringent rules about exhaust emissions. Cars became less what defined us, more a practical concern.
The Driver’s nostalgia for the old ways is seen in his ‘80s jacket, his ‘70s car, his stunt driving that recalls 1968’s Bullitt and the clarity and purity of old car movies like it. The Driver finds purpose protecting the old dream, even as he finds himself outside it, the stuntman living in the shadow of the leading man. And although we might not be on board with one of our friends getting in the habit of wielding a hammer and bullet to preserve their ideals, we kinda support The Driver. There is no irony here, no wink at the camera. The Driver is, according to Refn, a superhero. The Driver feels like a man out of time, like Captain America, but with more skull stomping. If we’re talking Joseph Campbell and monomyth, The Driver is on the hero’s journey, and the car is his supernatural aid, his talisman. So there is weight to The Driver’s choice of ride.
His getaway car is a Chevy Impala, explained by his boss and friend, Bryan Cranston’s Shannon, as the most common car in California. But The Driver’s own car is a 1973 Chevy Chevelle, referred to as a Malibu based on a trim choice. Ryan Gosling chose the car himself, took it apart and rebuilt most of it. The Chevelle may be uncool but it’s sensible: it doesn’t cost much, it’s sturdy, NASCAR racer Cale Yarborough even won a championship with his. It was arguably Chevy’s last great car, the last model developed by John DeLorean before he left to start DeLorean Motor Company. 1973 was also the year of the oil crisis, the beginning of the muscle car’s end. It’s the perfect car for someone longing for the past who might need to run from his own.
When The Driver steals a getaway car for the pawn shop robbery, he chooses a black 2011 Ford Mustang GT, the fifth-generation model of Frank Bullitt’s car, an homage to that iconic car chase. With this selection, he aligns himself not with the hitmen in the Dodge Charger, but with Bullitt himself, the good guy.
A fourth car is glimpsed briefly, a golden 1966 Pontiac GTO parked in Shannon’s garage. It recalls Warren Oates’s vehicle in Two-Lane Blacktop, a character only referred to by his car’s name, GTO. In Shannon’s final scene we find him propped against the GTO, its color called Bronze Martinique, recalling Oates’s 1970 Orbit Orange eyesore. Shannon is literally a broken man, his pelvis once shattered by loan sharks, who turns to the wrong people to realize his dream of auto racing, and Cranston handles the role with the masculine vulnerability of Oates, the same sad enthusiasm that betrays how lost he is. And, like Oates, Cranston talks more than anyone else in the movie.
Two-Lane Blacktop unravels the classic road film. It initially seems to be about a cross-country race, but the competitors stop along the way to help each other, exchanging advice and cars until they abandon the race. In the meantime GTO, one of the race’s participants, takes on hitchhikers, describing the car’s engine in a different and incorrect way to each of them, just as he tries on a new costume for every passenger.
Existentialism is revealed here, too, in GTO’s restlessness and quiet uncertainty as to where he might find happiness, and so with each passenger, he becomes a different person. Rudy Wurlitzer, screenwriter of Two-Lane Blacktop, described the Pontiac GTO as “the consumer car par excellence, a metaphor for consumer culture.” It’s a car for the man who doesn’t know what he wants in a vehicle or in his own life, who buys into a vision of fulfillment that was sold to him.
In Michael Mann’s Thief, car salesman-cum-safecracker Frank stays sane during an unjust, overlong prison sentence by creating a collage with pictures of a wife, children, a home. For The Driver, Irene and Benicio are a realization of Frank’s collage. And it’s no coincidence that both Irene and Frank’s love interest Jessie work in a diner, a literal rest stop, respite from the sound and fury of the road. Frank’s ride of choice is a Cadillac Eldorado, a status symbol and unsubtle allusion to the legend of a king gilded in gold dust. But Frank’s meditative practice isn’t driving, it’s safecracking.
In Thief, Frank sets his own car lot, his bar, and his house on fire; The Driver caves someone’s head in with his boot. Both are desperate men driven to violence, both suffocated and transformed by their circumstances. They find themselves on the periphery of the American dream, certain that this dream is theirs; that if they could only attain it, they would finally be whole. And the car is paradoxical: it serves an existential death wish just as it brings them closer to this vision of American happiness. They are tragic heroes in a fatalistic universe who can never quite get what they want, who confront a dying dream of what it once meant to be a man. What sets The Driver apart is that he finds satisfaction, a purpose, and, most elusive of all, absolution.
This was originally published in the April issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Drive at the Alamo Drafthouse next month.