You’re right, I am quite imaginative with my post titles. Thank you!
As the credits rolled and I contemplated the final decision made by the Driver as depicted in the final two shots, I thought to myself, “At this late stage, with all the other players eliminated, why wouldn’t he choose to go back to Irene and Benicio, if they’d have him?” I think I might have an answer, about which more later, but my main internal response to that question was just to shrug and wonder how you could really know anything about this guy as written.
“By their works ye shall know them” is a decent standard to apply to fictional depictions of bastardry and brutality, I think, but there was simply no way to apply it to the Driver in any way that made sense. Though he exuded a crinkly-eyed, quiet kindness throughout the film, especially in his tender interactions with Irene and Benicio but more revealingly with Shannon and especially Standard, and though he repeatedly insisted upon remaining an unarmed and inactive participant in the crimes he facilitated as the driver, he’s suddenly Jason Bourne at the drop of a hat when threatened. Not only is he a ruthlessly efficient killing machine, he’s cruel on more than one occasion: threatening to torture Blanche, actually torturing Cooke.
The problem on a structural level is that his actions, in and of themselves, are virtually indistinguishable from those of Bernie Rose, an equally proficient and brutal murderer who, like the Driver, does not seem thrilled about having been placed in this predicament. But Bernie’s clearly a bad guy by the standard of the film — as Benicio might say, just look at him, does he look like a good guy to you? But that distinction, between the good savagery of the Driver and the bad savagery of Bernie, is unearned. I know what Bernie is because of what I see him do. I see the Driver do similar things but I’m supposed to “know” that he’s something else. Is he?
I suppose you could say that that slow-motion shot of the Driver as he stares in apparently guilt-stricken horror at Irene after he crushes the guy’s skull in the elevator, coupled with the rivers of flop sweat pouring down his face as he confronts Nino over the phone while holding a hammer to Cooke’s head, is an indication that the Driver is deeply uncomfortable with the violence he’s forced to perpetrate. If that’s the case, then it follows that he leaves Irene and Benicio behind out of concern that he’s no good for them, even though they’re unlikely to be menaced by gangsters anymore. But his unthinking skill in this department, and those flashes of cruelty, are really hard to square not just with his niceness to his friends, but with all our other knowledge of his character — the hardworking kid who showed up at Shannon’s shop and worked for a song, the talented driver who doubles for the star of the movie and persuades gangsters to invest hundreds of thousand of dollars in a potential racing career, the getaway driver who limits his involvement with heists to five minutes of nonviolent chauffeuring.
The answer to the riddle is likely that the Driver’s just a type. He’s the reluctant hero, the good man forced to be a hard man. But while I can accept all of Drive‘s other thoughtful, beautifully executed homages to the Hollywood tradition — the Risky Business/Body Double score, the Taxi Driver lights in the windshield, the Lost Highway/Mulholland Dr. Weird Los Angeles vibe, the Man With No Name near-mute nameless protagonist, whatever — I have a hard time accepting a movie-person in place of an actual person. I didn’t used to, but I think I do now. I feel like the movie knew it needed to make the violence really horrifying to deflate the surrounding Coolness, and I’m glad it did, but I don’t think the emotional violence was commensurate. And to the extent that our satisfaction with the movie hinges so much on an emotional connection with those final shots of Irene knocking on the Driver’s door to no avail and the Driver driving away, a lack of emotional veracity elsewhere blows a hole in the whole thing.