Shakespeare asks the big questions and sometimes he answers them. In Romeo and Juliet he asks about love, often. He’s also a writer of contrasts. In Romeo and Juliet, the contrast is stark: Montague and Capulet, love and death. But there’s also this contrast between love and nothing, which appears very early in the play as the force driving Romeo, or rather, the force keeping him back, restraining him from living his own life. He’s plagued with a life of absence. Lacking love, he goes about his life in a distinct, enduring malaise, and even early on, in the immediate aftermath of a contentious battle between Montagues and Capulets, he thinks only of love and how he’s missing it. In the play’s first scene Romeo invokes a concept that has a surprisingly strong presence throughout the play: “Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate, / O anything of nothing first create;” (1.1. 169-170). He’s speaking about how love can come out of nothing, and he’s saying these words while looking over the blood spilt after another brawl between his family and their rival. Thus Romeo showcases his ability to see the connections and similarities between apparent opposites and opposing factions. He says that the bloodshed between the Capulets and the Montagues is due more to love than hatred, and his invocation of a series of contrasting couplets: “O heavy lightness, serious vanity/ misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms, / feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health” suggest that ‘nothing’ is in fact the inherent opposite of love. It’s this struggle between love and nothing that propels the dramatic action in Romeo and Juliet.
There is a similar feeling in the film Drive, a spare, stylish thriller starring Ryan Gosling. There have been a lot of things said about this film, particularly about its violence, which is quite vivid and occasionally grotesque. The film’s director, Nicolas Winding Refn, made his name through the Pusher trilogy, in which a character is infamously disemboweled on screen while dangling from a meat hook. Drive never reaches that level of carnage, but there are a trio of exquisitely violent murders that send the viewer into fits of squirming, nervous laughter and suddenly shut eyes. But the thing that stands out above all in Drive, at least to me, is Gosling’s character, an unnamed stuntman by day who moonlights as a get away driver post-heist. Gosling doesn’t utter a single word for the film’s first ten minutes. He is an extension of the wheel of his car, and all of his character is derived from his physical appearance—his immeasurably cool jacket, his driving gloves, his haircut—and the looks he gives the camera. Though he eventually does speak, it’s almost always in a low voice that hovers between whisper and growl. Gosling makes this voice vary between menacing and doting depending on whether he’s speaking to Albert Brooks or Carey Mulligan, but it’s always this same general tone, and he hardly ever says more than a few monosyllabic words. What stands out is the driver’s anonymity. He is literally nothing but a man that drives, both for the movies and the city’s crooks. He seeks out no human relationships, seems to have no friends and lives alone. His narrative about how long he gives himself over to the criminals who employ him—a five minute window, during which time he will do anything that is asked—is about as long as he seems willing to give any individual person. He leads this immensely exciting life, driving cars very fast and dodging danger, and he is entirely unmoved.
Carey Mulligan comes into the film first as a blur, visible in the screen’s periphery as Gosling comes into his apartment complex, and then more fully, her adorable dimples thrust into the screen’s center. Gosling’s driver doesn’t really transform upon her appearance, at least visibly. He does not burst from his cocoon, spouting love poetry like Romeo, comparing Mulligan to the sun. It is still his actions that define his relationship with her. He goes over to her smoking car in the parking lot of a grocery store to mend it, he takes her and her young son on an impromptu, high-speed drive beneath highway overpasses and up steep banks, watching their smiles grow wider and clearly feeling giddy at his role in their happiness. He kisses her very deeply in an elevator before smashing in the skull of a man who wishes to kill her. It seems apparent that the driver is in love, and though he does not express this through his words, Refn’s story makes it nonetheless apparent. Thus, his driver has gone from nothing to love, just like Romeo, and there’s really no turning back.
The driver’s rashness and astonishing faculty for violence is not so astonishing then, when one thinks about the film in this way. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is willing to leave his family behind, forsake their feud and ultimately end his own life rather than lead a life without Juliet. One can read his suicide at the play’s conclusion as a refusal to return to the ‘nothing’ that plagued him at the beginning, preferring death to a life without love. Gosling’s driver is much the same, performing increasingly bold and seemingly suicidal exploits all to protect Mulligan and her young son. His transformation is extraordinary, taking him from unassuming though unquestionably cool mechanic and stuntman and get away driver to merciless enforcer and ruthless killer, and this change is entirely propelled by the meaning his life takes on post-love. His speech is certainly more frequent now, and it contains a passion and a direction that was lacking before Mulligan’s arrival, but it’s his violence and his determination that more clearly marks this change. The driver is willing to die for Mulligan, and even accepts it as the only logical outcome just prior to his climactic encounter with Albert Brooks’s character.
Gosling described Drive to Conan O’Brien as a “violent Pretty in Pink” referring to the John Hughes movie, and though this may be oversimplifying it, there’s no question that the film is defined by its nostalgia and its romance. With a cast of only three truly important characters—Gosling, Mulligan and Brooks—and a remarkably straightforward plot, the film is a brisk, almost brief 96 minutes long. It’s a love story, and about the lengths one goes for love. But it is not an entirely clean film, and I would be doing it a disservice to ignore its deliberately ambiguous ending. There is a moment there, when Gosling lies bleeding in his car, his stare vacant and directed toward the windshield and the sky beyond it, where his lips seem to tremble and twitch toward a smile, as if he’s happy that’s he’s done all these things for love, that he’s content to die. But his lips instead remain fixed in an expression that is really the absence of an expression, something like the vacancy of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate while he rides the bus with the girl he’s wanted and suddenly has, and one wonders, as Gosling’s driver comes to life and begins to drive again, where he’s off to. It might be to Mulligan. In a perfect, Romeo and Juliet love story, it’s Mulligan and her little son. But I cannot say for certain, and the driver sure as hell isn’t telling.