Gosling as Noir’s Apex Predator
Once a year, usually in October, I re-watch the neo-noir film Drive (2011). The synthesis of pop soundtrack, neon visuals, and bleak subject matter triggers something deep in my mind, leaving me oddly happy. There are some aspects of the plot I still don’t quite understand, but every time I finish the film, I come away with the same thought: It’s physically difficult to stomp someone to death in an elevator.
Near the end of the film, when Ryan Gosling’s otherwise-nameless Driver slams his boot through the skull of an equally nameless goon sprawled on the floor of a lift, the violence takes a lot of grunting effort. He grips the handrails for more leverage, really puts his back into bringing that foot down. Blood sprays. Bone crunches like a mouthful of cereal.
No wonder it’s the scene that everybody remembers. One of the clips of it on YouTube has millions of views. That the Driver spends the seconds preceding the bloody stomping in lip-lock with Irene (Carey Mulligan), the object of his affections, just heightens the impact. It’s love and death in a little box.
It’s also the moment in the film when Irene (and perhaps the audience) realizes that the Driver is a total psychopath.
Or maybe ‘psychopath’ is the wrong word. In his stoicism and reliance on bone-crushing violence, the Driver has a lot in common with One Eye, the protagonist of the Medieval-era Valhalla Rising (2009), another film by Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. The Driver would be right at home in One Eye’s lawless wilderness, rendering people into meat left and right without consequence.
But the Driver was born a several centuries too late for that. Instead, he’s in Los Angeles, or more precisely, a version of Los Angeles familiar to any fan of noir, full of shadows and streaked with neon. And within that context, he is an apex predator. The gangsters who stand against him have no chance. Later in the film, he stalks and kills Nino, an avuncular gangster played by Ron Perlman, with a slow relentlessness more reminiscent of a slasher-film monster than the ostensible hero. (If Nino were a sympathetic character, the circumstances of his death would be sad and terrifying.)
Noir has a long tradition of handsome killers who transcend (or think they transcend) the rules of their environment. Sometimes they’re the anti-hero, as with Lou Ford, the murderous deputy sheriff who narrates Jim Thompson’s infamous novel The Killer Inside Me (adapted into film twice, in 1976 and 2010; I mentioned it in last month’s column). More often, they’re the side heavy who steps onstage long enough to deliver a brutal beat-down or gruesomely inventive killing (the Cohen Brothers specialize in sprinkling their films with that type), often before being dispatched in turn.
In Drive, by contrast, the Driver is largely positioned as the protagonist, as opposed to an anti-hero or villain. He is a real human being and a real hero, as a poppy song on the soundtrack repeatedly reminds us. Plus, he’s fighting to save Irene and her little boy, and there’s no purer goal than that. The dichotomy between his motives and his almost medieval savagery makes him the Great White Shark of the neo-noir world: in the end, no matter what his reasoning, or how intense his love, you’re just glad he isn’t coming after you.
I suspect that David Fincher’s upcoming film, “The Killer,” is going to tread much the same territory, although Fincher has never really cared about making his characters seem sympathetic or even vaguely likeable (when I re-watched “Seven” the other week, I realized Brad Pitt’s character is an insufferable jerk, for instance). Michael Fassbender certainly seems steely and composed as Fincher’s titular assassin. Will Fincher try to make you identify with him?
Nick Kolakowski is the author of „Maxine Unleashes Doomsday“ and „Boise Longpig Hunting Club“ as well as the Love & Bullets trilogy of novellas. His noir fiction has appeared in Tough, ThugLit, Mystery Tribune, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies. His „Payback is Forever“ (Shotgun Honey 2022) is inspired clearly by the novels of Richard Stark. Our review here (in German). – See also his Hell of a Mess. A Love & Bullets Hookup.
Nick Kolakowski, geboren 1980, aufgewachsen in Washington. D.C., hat Geschichte in Chicago studiert. Er schreibt Romane, Kurzgeschichten, Lyrik und Essays, viele davon über Crime Fiction und verwandte Themen. Seine Texte erscheinen u. a. in der Washington Post, in Shotgun Honey, North American Review, The Evergreen Review, Rust & Months. Kolakowski lebt in New York City. Eine Besprechung des von Parker inspirierten „Payback is Forever“ in unseren Bloody Chops.
His column „Smoking Gun“ with us:
Elmore Leonard – City Primeval
Cormac McCarthy Used Crime Fiction’s Tropes to Make Masterpieces
Parker: Donald Westlake’s One Amazing Trick
Cosby, Winslow, Pruitt: Three Heavy-Hitting Thillers for Summer
Weed-Based Crime Thrillers are Going Up in Smoke
‘The Last of Us’: Crime in the Post-Apocalypse
What Made “Glass Onion” and “Knives Out” So Popular?
Jordan Harper’s One-Two Punch of Crime Fiction Deserves a Wide Audience
‘True Detective’ Season 2: Was It Better Than We All Thought?
From ‘Touch of Evil’ to ‘True Detective,’ Long Shots are Crime Films’ Secret Weapon
Michael Mann, again: What Michael Mann Teaches Us About Enduring Crime Fiction
„Heat 2“ – How Do You Craft a Sequel to a Masterpiece?
4 Ways Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Novel Stands Out From the Film.
On „Heat“: Manhunter Takes Down Thief: How Michael Mann’s Early Career Led to ‘Heat’
The Most Honest Nihilism – on „The Way of the Gun“
No, Time to Die – The latest James Bond movie digs into the fatalism at the iconic spy’s core.
Cormac McCarthy’s Overlooked Masterpiece? – „The Councelor“
„Nightmare Alley“ – How Guillermo del Toro’s Film Alters a Masterpiece Noir Novel
David Cronenberg – The Carnal Crime of “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”
With Parker, Donald E. Westlake Pulled Off Crime Fiction’s Most Spectacular Magic Trick
Guy Ritchie’s Return to Crime Films is Worth Watching