A striking piece of symbolism highlighted throughout Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) is the golden scorpion stitched on to the back of the jacket worn by our nameless protagonist, the Driver. It is a reference to the allegory “The Scorpion and the Frog”, in which a scorpion rides the back of a frog across a river and stings him, dooming them both to drown. The scorpion admits that he could not resist hurting the frog as it is in his nature.
So, within the world of Nicolas Winding Refn’s synth-filled, noir inspired Los Angeles, which one is the Driver? With the scorpion literally on his back, is he the naïve frog, in constant danger of being stung? Or is he himself being labeled as the scorpion, unable to resist his violent tendencies?
We hope and expect him to be the former because we want to root for him. And why wouldn’t we? The Driver is brought to life by Ryan Gosling, an actor whose past roles have exemplified many of the characteristics (both physical and emotional) that we associate with a likeable white male savior archetype.
This particular character is written without many of these attributes, at least on the surface level. With only a stark one hundred and sixteen lines of dialogue, the Driver is largely silent and expressionless. He has a distinct lack of charisma and is only shown displaying/receiving affection in a few key scenes. Evidently, this is what lies at the heart of the character’s arc: the desire for intimacy, but the inability to achieve it.
The means he uses to pursue his wants/needs illustrate yet another way he is no ordinary protagonist. Throughout the film, the Driver engages in numerous criminal undertakings as well as unbridled acts of violence against others, where he often leaves them for dead.
This can be jarring, to say the least, coming from what we expect from a character like this, someone we initially anticipated as the “frog” of the story. But the Driver ultimately acts in the name of love, which we perceive as a noble cause. Therein lies the gateway for the audience to embrace his actions.
Drive simultaneously reinforces some of the tropes we have come to equate with the white male savior character while also deconstructing others. What results is a deeply complex character that strips away from the audience the safety of blindly championing such a protagonist, forcing them to confront their reasoning for doing so.
The Driver’s negative arc, in which he achieves neither what he desires nor what he needs, concludes on a note of ambiguity, to let the viewer decide if his story ends with tragedy or perhaps with karmic retribution for his wrongdoings. It really all depends on you, and what you saw: the scorpion, or the frog? We’re left asking ourselves the same question the Driver ponders in one scene where he is watching TV:
“Is he a bad guy? How can you tell?”