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Greg Garrett Greg Garrett

Greg Garrett is a novelist, a professor of English at Baylor University, writer-in-residence at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.

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Baylor University, Waco, TX
Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX


Greg Garrett: Drive, Ryan Gosling, and the Violent Jesus

September 30, 2011

The stylish, haunting, and violent film Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, is one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, with wildly enthusiastic responses like this one from Christopher Orr, writing for The Atlantic: "Now and then . . . you see a film that jumps off the spectrum altogether, one that reminds you that novel possibilities exist even within the most well-worn cinematic conventions." It's also a film that tells some essential truths about who we are these days. People looking in from outside often see things insiders cannot see, and Drive's Danish director, Nicolas Winding Refn (who took the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival), and British screenwriter Hossein Amini, have told a story that illuminates America in the here and now in ways that are alternately horrifying and hopeful. While Drive looks like something we recognize, a caper film with car chases, it is much more: a moody meditation on heroism, humanity, and how we get along with each other-or don't.

I've made something of a career (I dare not say a living) reading popular culture texts for philosophical and spiritual meaning, and I must confess that I am entranced by Drive, as I think the filmmakers meant for me to be. It's a startlingly well-made film-with startling violence. In its ultimate form, it is much more like a Western than a contemporary action film, and many critics have noted the similarities between Ryan Gosling's laconic Driver and Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name. Westerns have always revealed things about Americans: how we balance our drive between our desire to be free individuals and how we live in society, for example, and how violence may or may not be a good thing. The tagline for this film about a getaway driver is revealing: "There are no clean getaways."

Since it works like a Western, it's not surprising to find that Drive conforms to what scholars John Shelton Lewis and Robert Jewett called "the American monomyth" in their The Myth of the American Superhero: "A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity." I argued in my own book Holy Superheroes that this is one of the primary ways Americans understand themselves and their own heroes-not just comic superheroes, but heroes of Westerns, urban vigilante films, you name it.

Whether we realize it or not, literature and culture are one of the primary ways that we make meaning, and when I'm doing workshops on religion and culture, I often cite as a core text Kelton Cobb's The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture: "The media-world is the shelter where the vast majority of those of us who live in the West dwell and from which we draw the material out of which we make sense of our lives." Like many others who pay attention to literature and culture-scholars, cultural critics, theologians, philosophers-I recognize that, as Cobb contends, whole generations have been shaped more by popular culture than by any shared conception of faith or by biblical metanarratives.

What the American monomyth does, in a very real sense, is act as a substitute for the Christ-story as a controlling narrative. As Lewis and Jewett note, the monomyth is an ongoing retelling of the Judeo-Christian story of redemption,

combining elements of the selfless hero who gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil. The supersaviors in pop culture function as replacements for the Christ figure. . . . their superhuman abilities reflect a hope for divine, redemptive powers.

The problem, theologically and otherwise, is that in Drive, as in many of our popular culture artifacts, our new Jesus kills people. The movie's violence, surprising and brutal, comes after the Driver has befriended a mother and her son (Carey Mulligan and Kaden Leos) who live in his building. Although he has romantic feelings for the mother-and she for him-their lives are upended when her semi-estranged husband (Oscar Isaac) returns from prison and bad guys want him to do one last job for them, threatening the boy and his mom if he doesn't comply.

The Driver won't stand for that. And although he has been quiet and shy and completely in control, he stomps a man to death in the elevator in a scene-one of several in this film-that I simply could not watch.

This is exactly the sort of thing that biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink refers to as the Myth of Redemptive Violence, another of our American monomyths-if not, as Wink argues, our central global myth. In pop culture, our Christ figures-whether they are Neo in The Matrix or The Preacher in Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider-employ violence to save innocents, and that understanding informs what we do as a nation. Executing criminals, torturing terrorists, bombing opposing nations-we are believers that violence can solve problems, perhaps because, at least in the short run, it does.

We expect that if The Driver successfully employs violence against all these foes, the mom and little boy will be safe.

But as the tagline suggests, this employment of violence has its costs.

I argue in my recently-completed book on post-9/11 religion and culture that the TV show 24, extolled by many for its depiction of redemptive violence, also shows the soul costs to super-agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), and those soul costs are graphically represented in this film by the staining of The Driver's immaculate white satin jacket.

They are also shown dramatically: although he has sacrificed everything for her and for her son, The Driver does not get them as a plot prize. Like classic Western heroes from Shane on, the movie recognizes that violence disqualifies someone from returning to polite society.

In simple terms, could a woman ever love a man she has watched stomp another man until his skull burst open?

If there is a positive Jesus-y message from the film, it clearly cannot be about the efficacy of violence. As Martin Luther King preached in Strength to Love, "Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction." A stage littered with bodies is always the sign that we are watching a tragedy.

But one of the most positive things I carried away from Drive was The Driver's willingness to sacrifice the things that he wanted for a greater good. As the electronica band College reminds us on the film's soundtrack, when The Driver steps away from his narrow concerns and begins to live for others, he becomes a real hero-and a real human being. It's a violent but nonetheless true path of love, and (if you could somehow subtract the stomping) could represent Jesus' admonitions in the Gospel of John to love without regard to one's own welfare, to love so much that you're willing to give up your life for another-as indeed The Driver is willing to do.

When we look at pop culture for spiritual and philosophical meanings, we have to be clear-eyed; we have to note the negatives and positives, for culture can influence us by appealing to our darker as well as our most enlightened sensibilities. But even with its violence, a movie like Drive-beautifully made and entrancing-can remind us of the cost of that violence, and inspire us to give our lives in love.

Taken with the author's permission from his Patheos.com blog. Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal at Patheos.com. Subscribe via email or RSS.

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