The Nameless Protagonist in Drive
The nameless protagonist is hardly a new phenomenon in fiction. The aspect of this trope that changes over the years is its purpose. During the modernist era of literature, the nameless, anonymous status of the protagonist of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past establishes the narrator as a kind of “everyman” figure. In a postmodern work such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, however, the anonymity represents a loss of identity due to destructive external forces. This loss of identity is central Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 neo-noir drama Drive.
In what way is the main character of Drive (hereafter “the driver”) restrained from living the life he wants? First of all, the driver is unable to be truly romantically involved with the already-married Irene. A relationship with Irene would certainly provide respite from his alienated, distant existence. Indeed, we see a glimmer of hope when the driver goes on a joyride with Irene in the front seat, contrasting sharply with the alienated, covert atmosphere of the getaway drive at the beginning of the film. A certain amount of anonymity is maintained between the driver and his clients during getaways. His time spent with Irene points to the fact that the driver wants to reach out and connect with others, in spite of his time spent in more alienated situations.
Another aspect of the driver’s alienation is ironically due to others’ reluctance to connect to him. The flipside of the alienation issue can be seen in the fact that Irene never calls the driver by his own name. In other words, she is as equally reluctant as the driver is to open up. Does Irene even know the driver’s actual name? Certainly she must, given the driver’s close (yet unfulfilling) relationship with Irene and Benicio. The driver is able to be relatively close to Irene as a stand-in husband and to Benicio as a stand-in father, but no personal terms of endearment or titles are used, suggesting to the audience that there is still alienation present and a long-term relationship will never happen.
Furthermore, the driver (as evidenced by the title most viewers give to him) is defined by his job as a stuntman/mechanic/getaway driver rather than by more personal characteristics. His illegal ties to his various criminal clients further prevents him from having a personal relationship with Irene. We see this at the end of the film when he must leave Irene in order to protect her from dangerous criminal activity. During the film’s ending, it is evident that, as with many other similar moments of isolation throughout the film, the driver is limited to a lonely future of being merely what he already is—a driver, nothing more. He is, of course, capable of love, but he is deprived of future romance.
Various aspects of the driver’s life—the need to pick up extra money by getting mixed up with criminal activity, the desire to protect Shannon and Irene from gangsters, the difficulty of getting out of a life of crime once one has entered into it—serve to keep him confined to a limited existence. This lack of freedom could be the reason behind creating an isolated, nameless character who is unable to flesh out personal identifying characteristics, as is the case with other tragic, nameless protagonists in contemporary film and literature.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. New York: Modern Library, 1934. Print.
Refn, Nicolas Winding. Drive. FilmDistrict, 2011. Film.
(Image courtesy of http://collider.com/comic-con-carey-mulligan-drive-interview-images/)