“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
(Jack Kerouac, On the Road)
“Music expresses in an exceedingly universal language, in a homogeneous material, that is, in mere tones, and with the greatest distinctness and truth, the inner being, the in-itself, of the world, which we think of under the concept of will, according to its most distinct manifestation.”
(Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation)
There is something irresistible about the sight of a car coursing through the veins of a city, especially when it’s set to the right song. Sealed off from the streets it sweeps through, the vehicle becomes a perfect bubble, an interior realm akin to the driver’s own mind, sealed off from the physical world beyond its windows, filled with music.
The driver presses their foot down a little firmer, the car rolls forward faster. They twist the volume dial right and lose themselves in the music, their music, the song they’re making the world move to. They are in synch with the car, with the road beneath it and with the sounds roaring out: the purrs of the engine, the thunder of the drums, the squeal of the tires and the twang of guitars. So long as the engine roars, the wheels spin and the music plays, they are free.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver are films built around the same engine, though with drastically different paint jobs: Wright’s is all boy-racer brightness while Refn’s style is cooler, colder and campier. But beneath the surface, they are the same, as is made apparent by the opening heists which set them both in motion. A wheelman sits coolly in his sleek sports jacket, watching and waiting as his masked accomplices hustle out of the car, guns in hand. They tear towards their pray, jacked up and hungry, the opposite of his zen-like calm, his playful disinterest. He adjusts the volume on his iPod, the radio and the police scanner; he remains cocooned inside this soundscape. The gunshots, shouts and screams are taking place a world away, unable to pierce his sonic shield. All he can hear is the ticking of his watch, the scanner’s static, the pure liquid cool of the John Spencer Blues Explosion. He is a musician waiting to begin, fiddling with his instrument, making a few final tweaks. He is a tightly coiled ball of potential energy, begging to be released. The slam of the doors behind his returning accomplices is like the tic-tic-tic of drumsticks counting him in, and off he goes.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) and The Driver’s (Ryan Gosling) stories proceed from their shared starting points in much the same direction, mapping out the same route for most of their plot. They fall for a girl and try to get out, only to find that resisting the underworld is like straining against a boa constrictor. They are drawn further in, a job goes wrong, things spiral out of control, bodies start to drop. In the end, they have to sacrifice themselves to save the ones they love.
Both protagonists are of a certain type — an archetype, in fact, that can be traced back through the wandering ronin of Samurai classics and the grim-faced gunslingers of Spaghetti Westerns. One which evolved into its urban incarnation through Jean-Pierre Melville, Michael Mann and John Woo.
He is a loner with a clear moral code, capable of great violence but not inherently cruel. He speaks few words because he prefers action, only saying a thing if he really means it. He stands apart from society and its structures, floating freely between the lawful and criminal worlds, living each day in the grey area between good and evil. This distance makes him both powerful and weak, able to slip the grasp of the powers that be by staying in constant motion, unable to truly settle anywhere, unable to connect with any place or person. He calls nowhere “home” and no-one “his.” He is much freer and far more trapped than the average citizens around him, more complete and more comprehensively broken.
In 1978, Walter Hill took the latest incarnation of this wandering soul and put him behind the wheel of a car. The rest is history or, more accurately, mythology.
By giving him a car, films like The Driver, Drive and Baby Driver offer their protagonist an exaggerated, physical method of self-expression which counters their otherwise muted personas. Like martial arts masters and quick-fingered cowboys, the characters in a car chase can show the audience who they are through their actions, walking testaments to cinema’s sacred “show don’t tell” rule.
Baby is all boyish exuberance, as thrilled by the guitar riff of “Bell Bottoms” as he is by spinning a car through a crooked alley at half the speed of light. The Driver is defined by meditative calm, inner stillness expressed in gear shifts, tooth picks and tire-squeaks.
Even after they’ve left their cars, they continue to communicate who they are through how they move more than what they say. Baby pantomimes the songs streaming out of his ear buds as he walks down the street, clumsily making the world dance to his tune while he goes for coffee, lands a first date at a laundromat and makes sandwiches for his adoptive father. When the buds are plucked from his ears, he is returned to reality with a sickening thud. While the music plays, he jams along and forgets the world, dancing on four wheels, a child at play in a brightly-coloured car. When the music stops, he is forced to confront the bloody fingers dangling from the boot.
The Driver retains his stony calm after the job is done, forging deep relationships in small gestures. Staring contests with the kid next door make him smile, silent gazes into his neighbour Irene’s (Carey Mulligan) eyes create a silent communion. His car is still his best form of self-expression, taking his makeshift family for sun-dappled drives so they can smile a little as their problems recede into the rear view mirror.
Pioneering neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington coined a term that is doubly fitting for both drivers: “Motor Individual.” By it, he meant the person who emerges through action, the version of ourselves we act out into the world rather than the one locked inside our heads. For both Baby and The Driver, self-expression is a matter of music and motion. They impose their inner self on the outer world through the movement of their vehicle. It acts as the conduit between the creativity and rhythm of their minds and the reality outside, the link through which the two can be brought into harmony.
When they first find themselves in conversation with the girl they’ve been gazing after, their monosyllabic tendencies make dialogue a little difficult. As their first attempts sputter, both women try to jumpstart the conversation with one of the most fundamental small talk questions: “What do you do?” In both cases, the response is simply “I drive.” It could be that the heroes’ stunted answers are just due to their natural tendency to avoid talking, or their desire to conceal the criminal aspects of their livelihoods — but, in saying so little, they say a lot. “I drive” is a statement that rings existentially true for both men. They drive the way a writer writes: not just because it is their job, but as the result of an overpowering inner desire to do so for its own sake. Making money is the product but not the purpose of their actions: they drive just to drive.
For Baby and his partner Deborah, driving is a truly Kerouacian experience. Both of them are styled with an all-American, 50s vibe that exudes innocence and wholesome fun. They meet in a diner that looks as if it might serve nothing but ice cream, apple pie and black, black coffee. She, of course, works there as a waitress. He, of course, is the mysterious stranger, just stopping in between long drives and mad adventures. When Baby imagines their life together, he envisions it in black and white, like a scene from the kind of classic movie where the heroes get to drive off together towards a monochrome sunset.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road” (Jack Kerouac, On The Road)
They are starry-eyed kids with nothing and everything, drawn to “the road” because it promises exactly that. In the great American mythology, “the road” is the half-imaginary route to somewhere better. Its destination is uncertain and unimportant, its goal is not to get you anywhere fast, or even to get you anywhere at all, but just to get you away from where you are now. Its goal is to get you going. So long as you’re going, you’re free.
When Baby asks Deborah what she wants in life, she says it as well as Kerouac ever did:
“Sometimes all I want to do is head west on 20 in a car I can’t afford with a plan I don’t have – just me, my music, and the road.”
The Driver is a little older, a little less blessed with Baby’s wide-eyed wonder at where the road might one day take him. As Refn explained in numerous interviews about the film, he is someone who drives around listening to pop music because it is the only way he can feel. Like his brother-in-spirit Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), he is the picture of modern, urban alienation: surrounded all the time by other people, unconnected to any of them. He lives alone in an ascetic apartment, moving between his repair shop job, his stunt work and his getaway roles in the confinement of his car. Sequestered from the world around him, his music is the only connection he has to anything beyond himself until he meets Irene and her son. From then on, he has something real to protect — a strange, near-silent connection that means more than anything else in his life, more than life itself.
Certain elite athletes are described as moving with “personality” or “character.” Mike Tyson’s compacted, relentless fury. Ronaldinho’s hip-swaying playfulness. Usain Bolt’s effortless confidence. When we watch them, it feels like the gap between their internal self and the one we can see has been reduced to near non-existence. They are moving without thinking, imposing their nature onto the outside world without mediation. In some ways, this feels like a “truer” picture of who they are than the most painstakingly worded description could ever offer.
When Baby and The Driver hit the accelerator, the feeling is the same.
In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer attributes music a similar quality in its ability to express our innermost emotions without the need to relate them to the outer world. Music offers a pure expression of what he called “will” — the “I” who sits behind our eyes looking for a way to make themselves known to the world outside. For both Baby and The Driver, music is vital in their attempts to connect to anything beyond themselves.
Baby has different iPods for different moods, whole worlds of music he carries in his pocket to plug himself into so that reality feels the way it should. With no other outlet for his emotions, he uses these iPods as his own personal pathetic fallacy generators: moulding the outside world to his mood. He is like a child raised on Hollywood movie logic: if he is sad, a sad song must begin to play. If he’s excited, there you should be a drum beat rumbling through the air. If he’s missing his mother, the Commodores “Easy” should croon out to comfort him. When he’s with Deborah, nothing but his pink and sparkly iPod will do.
As Drive’s logo sears the screen in neon pink letters, the near silence which reigned throughout its opening sequence is blown apart by Kavinsky’s sinister, strange “Nightcall.” The music kicks in as The Driver’s car door thuds closed with the job complete, leaving him free to drive out into the night, no longer in service of anyone but himself. As he coasts through the lamp-lit streets, the music tells viewers how he sees himself: an alien force roaming freely through the night, powerful and mysterious.
The music continues to convey the emotions running beneath his calm surface throughout the film. He is “A Real Hero” as he comes to the aid of Irene and her son, feeling purposeful and “good” for perhaps the first time ever. “I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I do nothing but think of you…” comes reverberating through the walls as he sits alone in his apartment, with Irene and her friends celebrating the return of her husband. Drive’s world is a comic book-ish hyper-reality where everything is a little oversized, and the soundtrack is fine-tuned to suit this: earnest pop songs that often literally describe his emotions. Through them, viewers gain the picture of a stunted individual trying to live out a superhero fantasy: a Travis Bickle who went to Hollywood.
Music and movement are vital to both protagonist’s self-expression, their connection to the world outside their own minds. The conflict comes from the fact that they are not able to drive just for themselves, to retain sole ownership of their skills and passion, but are forced to prostitute them to their employers. Although amped up into a comic book-esque tale of gunshots and getaways, it’s a problem which almost any audience member can probably relate to. Anyone who has found the thing in life which makes them happiest will have to choose to either squeeze it in during their free time or to try and convert this love into their livelihood at the risk of seeing it putrefy before them.
The artist doing bullshit commissions. The writer doing fluff pieces. The comic getting heckled by drunkards in dive bars. The godly driver, ferrying thugs in search of drug money.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel saw work in much the same terms as Schopenhauer describes music: a means of imprinting our inner self onto the physical world. We rarely feel more in synch with the world around us than when working hard on something we love. Some people are able to make a living doing so but, for the larger part of the modern world, work is more likely to involve a repetitive, trivial task performed for hours on end with little or nothing to stimulate any part of their minds beyond the bare minimum required to keep performing it.
These systems find physical form in Drive and Baby Driver in the likes of Doc (Kevin Spacey) and Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks). While the heroes remain silent, refusing to express themselves until they can do so authentically, Doc and Bernie both breathe in monologues and acerbic one-liners. Baby and The Driver have little need to talk because they aren’t looking to influence anybody else: they exist as autonomous agents, as free will on four wheels. Doc and Bernie are constantly convincing, dissuading, threatening, extorting. Their power comes not so much from what they do as from their ability to make others act according to their plan. They own the means of production, so the profits are theirs, even if everyone else is doing the work.
The paradox for Baby and The Driver is that driving represents both their liberation and their confinement. Behind the wheel, they can do things no-one else can, move at incredible speeds, leave their rivals in the dust, make the world move to their music. But, for all their horsepower, they remain trapped by the systems that run their world, by the men like Doc and Bernie who have none of their talents but possess the greed and power to control their lives.
The average person is free to do as they want, to follow their passions and live their life however they choose. They are free to reject the menial opportunities afforded to them, and to consequently go broke and become homeless. Or they are free to do as they are told to earn the means to survive. They have free will, but they can only implement it within the limited choices the system leaves open to them.
The criminal underworld which Baby and The Driver are drawn into is again simply an enlarged picture of many average people’s existence. The system which they are a part of is a power structure that pre-dates them, controlled by those who gained their position mostly by fluke of birth and who maintain it through the exploitation of those beneath them. To Doc and Bernie, the protagonists are nothing more than tools, marketable skill sets which they can employ to further enrich themselves. Their employees are not people to them, merely cogs in a machinery designed to generate as much profit as possible. Use the cog until it is worn out and breaks down completely, dispose of it and find a new one.
Unable to resist it, Baby and The Driver begin their movies by doing their jobs and finding the spaces in-between the system in which they can express themselves. They still get to drive and still get some time in which they can drive just for the hell of it. They still have music, and they still have the people they love — things which make the toll their work takes an endurable price to pay. On the road, they can move however they please, even if they will eventually arrive at the job they don’t want or the home they need it to pay for. On the road, they are free.
If a film is set in a major, modern city, there is a good chance it will have some version of the aerial shot that shows its sprawling structure and the traffic flowing through it. It always makes me think of the opening paragraph in Haruki Murakami’s After Dark:
“Through the eyes of a high-flying bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature — or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms. Countless arteries stretch to the end of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old.”
From above, Baby and The Driver appear as cells within the city’s gargantuan body, shuttling through it with great speed but little real freedom, permitted to exist only so long as they fulfil their function within it. But human beings are, of course, much more than this. There are deeper layers to them which are not extinguished, no matter how the system suffocates them. When Baby pauses mid-heist to rewind a song, his accomplices are astounded that he would risk their success for something so frivolous. To him, the soundtrack is the most vital part of the entire operation.
Music and movement act as the conduits for the parts of Baby and The Driver which exist beyond any profit/loss equation. By pressing down on the pedal and turning up the volume, they can make manifest the bundle of thoughts, ideas and feelings that is their true self. Driving is not just their job, it is their work in the full Hegelian meaning of the word, their art.
Baby Driver and Drive are not road maps to modernity, they don’t offer any route through it that guarantees a safe arrival. The only advice they might offer is to tear up the map itself. To simply drive.
Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.