Edit: Condensed the analysis into a video here
Faced with a river, a scorpion enlists the help of a frog to ferry it across the water on its back. Fearful for being stung, the scorpion explains that if it were to sting the frog they would both drown. Alas, halfway across the river the scorpion stings the frog. As they begin to sink to their death the frog asks the scorpion why it had doomed them both, receiving the reply that it is in its nature.
Ryan Gosling plays the part of a nameless Hollywood stuntman/ mechanic/ getaway driver turned breadwinning moral avenger in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive – subverting the strong-silent type of classic cinema and, like Refn’s Valhalla Rising and Bronson, calling into question the nature of violent heroes on screen. The following analysis will examine how the hero of Drive is made to appear reserved and unpredictable in an effort to make him unknowable – but really how his actions are undermined by his childlike sensibilities and confused sense of self.
“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. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own.”
The use of a false personality carries through to the very next sequence, which at first shows how the audience does not really know his character by having him appear momentarily as a police officer. This fleeting moment of doubt is corrected when his manager Shanon (Brian Cranston) tells him of the director’s requirements for the scene in which he will be body-doubling: the requirements of which have him place a latex mask over his head – a more overt reference to his hidden, or malleable, identity. While passing on direction from a higher source of authority, Shanon refers to the Driver as ‘Kid’. This significant nickname will persist throughout the film, spoken most frequently by Shanon taking the role of father figure.
In the following scene, with this father figure gone, the Driver is left to wander the supermarket like a kid lost where he sees his neighbor with her son. Car broken down, he comes to the aid of the stranded damsel and drives them back to their shared complex. He and the child share a gaze in the elevator without speaking: Benicio’s silence will also reoccur as a poignant reflection of the Driver, as well as wearing a Halloween mask as soon as they enter the apartment and being offered a toothpick by the taciturn Driver – later even shown wearing his jacket. But more than showing the inner-child, and perhaps reminding of himself, he also forms a domain for which the Driver feels a responsibility to protect: it gives him the chance to act as father himself and fill the gap that Shanon had for him. This idea is represented in the brief moment shared between the damsel turned love interest Irene (Carey Mulligan) in her apartment. As they talk a mirror on the back wall shows a large, shadowed figure looking over Benicio and his absent father, Standard.
The following scene serves to highlight conflict with the Driver’s sense of individualism and newfound responsibility by showing Shanon arranging a job on his behalf with mob boss/ loan shark Bernie Rose. Their dynamic is explained (in the first of far too many how-we-met anecdotes) when Irene brings her car to the garage that they both work at. Shanon explains how he had taken the Driver in and jokes about how easy it is to exploit him. Although he delivers the line in humour it does resonate with the high-risk jobs that he has set-up for the Driver outside of the garage. He then arranges the Driver to give her and her son a lift home – a scene that shows the, at least attempted, progression into her savior. This is once again assisted by a synth-pop song that refers to a male subject as ‘hero’. He returns back to her apartment once again where his childlike semblance becomes more apparent. He sits with Benicio watching a cartoon, parallel in position, when he asks:
Driver: Is he a bad guy?
Driver: How can you tell?
Benicio: Cause he’s a shark.
Driver: There’s no good sharks?
Benicio: No. I mean, just look at him. Does he look like a good guy to you?
The moral alignment of the shark character in cartoons is mentioned in the introduction of the book SuperFreakonomics – Stephen J. Dubner explains that elephants kill far more people per year yet they are “a staple of children’s films… sharks, meanwhile, are inevitably typecast as villains”. These seemingly innocuous questions may offer a criticism of how film uniformly represents criminals, of all kinds, as villainous and immoral – a representation that Wefn has repeatedly challenged in his films. This brief conversation then, aligns the Driver with both Benicio and the audience as he reflects on himself as a violent hero; or it could indeed be a reference to his naivety in trusting his new boss – a loan shark. The importance of showing the more childlike side of the Driver is in how it reveals more about his acts of criminality and violence. The smooth-talking crook from the beginning of the film is revealed to be nothing more than one of his rehearsed characters; he repeats his first speech almost word for word later in the film and when he threatens a previous affiliate in a café he receives the unmoved response of “Nice saying you got there” – this is an image that he has strived to obtain but now he has been given motivation to protect and provide for the child he once was.
When the Driver finally kills Nino, a wannabe Italian Jew who is himself sick of being treated as a kid, on the beach dressed in his identity-concealing mask, he phones Bernie Rose and tells him of the news through the fable of the scorpion and the frog. Alluding to himself as the scorpion it serves to mask the true meaning behind this prevalent symbol – it would at first seem as though it is a reflection of a violent criminal that is unable to change his nature and thus, despite all his efforts to become the hero figure, is fated to follow a path that will ultimately prove to be fatal. However, the key to understanding this fable in relation to the film is in looking past the Driver’s proclaimed role: he is in fact the frog who carries the scorpion on his back. In offering a mode of transportation to the violent criminals he is putting himself in the hands of people who cannot change their nature and will ultimately bring him down with them – the final job being initiated significantly at the bank of a river. When acting as guardian of the family or the ‘hero’ he does not wear the jacket – with the exception of the one scene in the elevator in which he reveals the danger that follows him which ultimately pushes Irene away.
The Driver’s decision-making and consequent reactionary violence had previously been controlled or supervised by his father figure Shanon. Believing himself to be the scorpion, flaunting the symbol around despite it lying on a blood-stained jacket in public, the Driver believes his path of violence and criminality to be inevitable. He attempts to rectify his actions by steering them morally toward justice in protecting a family unit – but his moral compass is broken from being nurtured by a crook. He can no longer tell why the shark cannot be a good person and so convinces himself of his own inescapable fate and marks it as a self-fulfilling prophecy.