I watched Drive the other night, a movie that takes place in California about a nigh unstoppable badass, a possible sociopath with an almost supernatural ability regarding cars, whose enemy is a crime lord who will stop at nothing to kill him. Before putting the DVD into the player I was wondering if it would have any thematic connection to a certain video game, namely Driver: San Francisco, a video game that takes place in California about a nigh unstoppable badass, a possible sociopath with an almost supernatural ability regarding cars, whose enemy is a crime lord who will stop at nothing to kill him.
Beyond that superficial comparison of the details, the movie and the game don’t really have much in common. Drive is a mostly slow paced affair concerned with character development and the main character’s relationships with others, punctuated by sudden violence, which brings a grim underworld into the stark light of day. Driver concerns an internal cerebral battle, in which the violence is presented as so over the top that the player is lucky that he doesn’t consider the main bad guy a Saturday morning cartoon villain. Really I could pack it in there and call it a night—save for one thing. Ryan Gosling’s character is solely defined as a person by his most potent ability: driving. He has no name, no past, and all the human contact that he has is filtered through driving. The dates that he goes out on? They’re night drives. The business ventures that serve as his main means of human contact? They are his job at a garage and stock car racing. He meets his “love interest” by helping her with her car. In an action video game, the protagonist is solely defined by the verb that the player uses to interact with the game. In the case of Driver: San Francisco and John Tanner, that verb is “drive.”
The player’s entire interaction with the character is through the ability to drive a car and drive it well (or at least fast enough and crazy enough that it doesn’t matter). We only control the protagonist in those moments when he is driving. Several times during cutscenes, we see him talking with his partner or interrogating a suspect outside of a car, but once control is handed back to us, our knowledge of the character and the world is filtered through driving. Anytime that Tanner shifts into a car with a passenger, the dialogue is odd. As it should be, since he doesn’t know what situation that he has teleported into. After all the dialogue had run its course, I still wasn’t sure in some cases what was going on. Inevitably as soon as Tanner’s ability takes over, the conversation turns to the driving. It is his only way to communicate with people or the world. It is who he is. When he wakes up in the hospital, he asks his partner for car keys. He tries to explain things, but in the end, it is his driving that solves the case, not any investigative work or hunches.
These two men are defined by their occupation, living on opposite ends of the law in completely contrary worlds. On the one hand, Ryan Gosling, whose character is only referred to as Driver, exists in a stark, gritty world with his existence punctuated by long quiet moments as much as by short violent ones. This applies to both his criminal enterprises as well as his legitimate work as a stunt driver for the movies. On the other hand, Tanner never stops moving. His existence keeps charging forward at a violently reckless pace for long extended periods, punctuated by short quiet moments of reflection and confusion. Even his mental breakdown involves a high speed chase. It is interesting to note that the only quiet (or non-action) portion of the game is when Tanner exists as a disembodied spirit outside of a vehicle.
In comparing the two characters, honestly it’s John Tanner who comes off as the more unhinged individual. Gosling’s Driver is a man caught up in a situation that he doesn’t want to be involved in and is pushed to extreme ends for the sake of those that he loves. The film is old fashioned noir, featuring characters that are pushed into doing what they do not want to do by consequences that they cannot escape. Tanner is pushed to extreme ends by a potential terrorist plot—in the story missions, at least. Everywhere else, the motivation is just as intense and ludicrous but most importantly urgent. There is no slow boiling tension to sublimate our dread. All the danger is front and center, characterized by its immediacy. Ryan Gosling’s character is dragged into the situation by trying to be the good guy and do the right thing in a cool efficient manner. John Tanner is the good guy and ends up forcing the situation in the most reckless and dangerous way possible. The fact that the whole game is in his head only makes me question Tanner’s stability even more.
Two men dictated by driving: one driven by an intense focus on the calm precision necessary to master the physical science of it all, the other driven by the raw emotional power that a two ton extension of the self provides. Really that’s the difference that it comes down to. When put in a place of power, where their skills matter, Tanner will wave it around like a loaded gun with a hair trigger, while Drive’s Driver acts the part of the sniper. I respect the man with the greater sense of responsibility and respect for his profession and, by extension, for himself.
Tanner does not respect his ability, so much as he abuses it. He is good at driving and then finds every conceivable opportunity to use that ability, even forcing the issue in some cases. He pushes himself in a near maniacal quest to find Jericho. While forced to face his mortality (even in a seemingly immortal state), I can’t help but think that his situation might be the result of a personal death wish. He does not respect his ability, the verb that defines him. Doesn’t that mean that he does not respect himself? If so, that is why he throws himself into these dangerous situations or into mundane situations (to the latter of which, his mind adds the necessary danger). Either that is the narcissism of a thrillseeker, in which case it is the threat of death that gives his life meaning (through the danger of the car’s destruction and by extension himself) or it is the subconscious suicidal tendencies of a man over the edge, a standard trope for the cop drama. Either way, he is going to get himself killed, and he might not mind it so much if he succeeds.