In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Drive, we talk about themes that help us understand the film.
- Ryan Gosling – The Driver
- Carey Mulligan – Irene Gabriel
- Bryan Cranston – Shannon
- Albert Brooks – Bernie Rose
- Oscar Isaac – Standard Gabriel
- Christina Hendricks – Blanche
- Ron Perlman – Nino ‘Izzy’ Paolozzi
- Kaden Leos – Benicio Gabriel
- James Biberi – Chris Cook
- Jeff Wolfe – Assassin In The Tan Suit
- Russ Tamblyn – Doc
- Andy San Dimas – Dancer
- Hossein Amini – Writer
- Nicolas Winding Refn – Director
The themes and meaning of Drive
The Duality of Human Nature
One of the central themes in Drive is the duality of human nature, embodied by the film’s protagonist, known only as The Driver—a soft-spoken mechanic and stuntman by day, and a cold, ruthless getaway driver by night. This stark contrast is not merely a character trait, but a broader exploration of the duality that exists within all of us.
The Driver’s professional life is steeped in danger, adrenaline, and the threat of violence. However, his personal life is relatively simple and quiet. He forms a bond with his neighbor, Irene, and her son, Benicio, revealing his gentler side. This dichotomy is evidenced in the film’s cinematography. The high-speed chases and violent scenes are shot with a harsh, unforgiving light, while the scenes featuring Irene and Benicio bask in a soft, natural glow. The accompanying synth soundtrack adds to the calmness of The Driver’s moments with his neighbors, giving them a dreamlike atmosphere that’s severely juxtaposed by the heavy, nightmarish tone of the film’s darker, more violent moments.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn uses this theme of duality to comment on the complexity of human nature. The Driver is not a hero or a villain—he’s both, as are we all to varying degrees. Drive does not pass judgment but instead presents the truth of the matter: humans are capable of extreme kindness and brutal violence. This duality is clearly demonstrated when The Driver kisses Irene in an elevator, only to brutally kill a man moments later. The abrupt shift from romantic to violent reveals the two distinct sides of his persona.
The Search for Identity
A second major theme in Drive is the search for identity, which takes center stage through The Driver’s journey. The character, portrayed with a quiet intensity, is a mysterious figure whose lack of a proper name and backstory accentuates his enigmatic nature. This anonymity serves to emphasize his struggle for self-discovery and understanding.
The Driver’s iconic scorpion jacket further symbolizes his attempt to define his identity. The scorpion is an emblematic representation of his dangerous and unpredictable nature, yet it is also a protective shell, a way to conceal his vulnerability. In the film, the jacket acts as a visual representation of his persona, an exterior marker that differentiates his two distinct lives: the gentle, caring neighbor and the ruthless criminal.
As the story unfolds, The Driver’s search for identity becomes increasingly apparent through his relationships with other characters. With Irene, he discovers a sense of belonging and purpose that had previously eluded him. The bond he forms with Irene and her son Benicio highlights his yearning for connection, stability, and an opportunity to embrace a more wholesome life. This relationship offers a glimpse of the person The Driver could be if he were to abandon his criminal lifestyle.
However, The Driver’s past and the criminal world he inhabits continue to exert a powerful pull on him. Characters like Bernie and Nino represent the underworld that threatens to derail his path to redemption. Their presence serves as a reminder that despite The Driver’s desire to change, the world of crime and violence remains an inescapable part of his life.
In the climactic confrontation with Bernie, The Driver’s readiness to leave the life of crime is put to the test. When Bernie stabs him, The Driver is forced to defend himself, ultimately killing Bernie. This act of self-defense, however, reinforces the reality that his criminal past will continue to haunt him, making it difficult to fully embrace the better life he desires with Irene.
In the end, The Driver’s search for identity remains an ongoing struggle, highlighting the complexity of human nature and the perpetual quest to define ourselves in a world full of contradictions. The film’s ambiguous conclusion, with The Driver driving away into the night, leaves the audience pondering his fate and reflecting on the universal journey of self-discovery and the search for meaning in our lives.
Isolation and Loneliness
Drive presents a profound exploration of isolation and loneliness, using its setting and characters to mirror these themes. Los Angeles, with its sprawling cityscape and endless highways, serves as a backdrop that emphasizes the characters’ alienation.
The Driver is a solitary figure who seems detached from the world around him. His apartment, sparse and empty, mirrors his emotional landscape. His profession as a getaway driver further emphasizes his solitude, as he navigates the city’s sprawling streets alone, always in motion but never forming meaningful connections.
Even in his relationship with Irene, there’s an undercurrent of solitude. Though he cares deeply for her and Benicio, he’s still an outsider, separated by his dark past and dangerous lifestyle. The scene in which The Driver watches Irene and her family from a distance at the party, despite being in the same room, encapsulates this feeling of emotional detachment.
Ironically, the car, typically a symbol of freedom and mobility, serves as a vessel of isolation for The Driver in Drive. He spends most of his time enclosed within the metal confines, physically distanced from others. The scene where he drives through the night after the pawn shop heist, his face illuminated only by the dim dashboard lights, is a powerful visual representation of his solitude.
Furthermore, the film uses silence to intensify the feeling of desolation. Much of the film unfolds with minimal dialogue, leaving the characters to dwell in their own thoughts, separated not just physically but emotionally as well. The Driver, in particular, speaks very little, which further isolates him from others and underlines his loneliness.
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