For better or worse, fiction has always romanticized crime. The allure of living outside the law has been a fixture of pulp stories dating back to Bonnie and Clyde during the Great Depression. There are many different “types” of criminals in these stories: the bank robbers, the gangsters, the killers. One breed of criminal in particular has been the focus of numerous recent films right up to 2017’s BABY DRIVER and WHEELMAN: the Driver.

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WHEELMAN BABY DRIVER

How do we define the Driver archetype? Looking back to characters like Steve McQueen in BULLITT, we typically define them as being calm and cool under pressure. However, McQueen’s character operated on the right side of the law. Perhaps the character that best suits the contemporary idea of the Driver is, obviously, Walter Hill’s 1978 film THE DRIVER.

Hill’s cult classic is a beloved film among top-shelf directors. On an episode of the podcast THE CANON, Edgar Wright paraphrased the famous quote about the Velvet Underground to describe THE DRIVER: “Not everyone saw it, but everyone who did made a movie.” Besides Wright, the film has been praised by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Nicolas Winding Refn.

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Hill’s film centers around the cat-and-mouse game between the Driver (Ryan O’Neal) and the Detective (Bruce Dern). That’s pretty much the whole movie. The Driver drives; the Detective chases. Hill boiled the film down to its most fundamental elements. He even left out proper names for the characters; they are pure embodiments of their titles. This is a key element of the Driver archetype. The Driver is often a blank slate, allowing the audience to project their own desires and feelings onto the character.

This often allows audiences to embrace the Driver figure even though they are on the wrong side of the law. The Driver rarely commits acts of violence, and if they do, it’s in the name of self-defense or protection of another. They are the contemporary version of the lone outlaw, complete with a code of ethics and trusty steed with four wheels and six gears.

A Driver’s Purpose

Ultimately, the Driver archetype has one primary goal: to keep moving. In Hill’s THE DRIVER, his protagonist is interested only in the thrill of the chase. By the end of the film, he loses the big score but manages to outsmart the Detective. The Driver returns to the open road, his true home, to continue the chase another day.

It’s a lack of movement, an inability to escape, that often creates conflict for the Driver archetypes. In Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE, Driver (Ryan Gosling) has a similar arc as Hill’s Driver. Gosling’s portrayal of the character is mute and practically motionless. His only true movements are during bursts of violence or when he is behind the wheel of a car. He is an extension of his car rather than the car being an extension of him.

BABY DRIVER

The difference here is that Refn’s Driver is seeking a home. He yearns to be a part of the family Irene (Carey Mulligan) has built; he even has a surrogate father in the form of Shannon (Bryan Cranston). It’s that yearning to break from his solitary lifestyle that puts him at odds with his ultimate goal: to stay still. The life of the Driver is one without attachments or commitments. When he tries to help Irene’s ex, Standard (Oscar Isaac), he finds himself on the run from vicious gangsters.

Here, we see the Driver’s typical conflict: the fly caught in the spider’s web. This Driver is one of the few who actually gets his hands dirty with violence. We see by the end of the film that this isn’t due to some code, but rather because the Driver knows if he lets his monstrous side out, he won’t be able to control it. His nature is one of violence, as his on-the-nose scorpion jacket reminds us.

Once Upon a Pair of Wheels: BABY DRIVER

WHEELMAN BABY DRIVER

Refn’s version of the Driver is atypical in his violent nature. Most Drivers, like Edgar Wright’s Baby (Ansel Elgort), abstain from violence. This again makes the Driver an easier to embrace criminal figure. Baby, a name that basically begs for empathy, also maintains a strict moral code and a rejection of violence. He too seeks the solace of a life away from crime because Baby is a victim of circumstance more than a solitary thrill seeker.

In BABY DRIVER, Edgar Wright gives audiences much more backstory than we typically receive for the Driver archetype. We learn that when Baby was young, his parents died in a car crash. That same crash damaged Baby’s ears, giving him a form of tinnitus. Baby’s coping mechanism for the tinnitus comes in the form of music and cars. Both of these things give him a connection back to the family he lost. The music reminds him of his mother’s voice, and the open road provides the promise of the American myth — a road that leads to any state and the endless possibilities of freedom.

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Baby, like all Drivers, eventually finds himself trapped in the spider’s web of crime. When a job turns violent, he decides he wants out of the life. He plans to run off with Debora (Lily James) into that highway sunset. It’s in this moment that the Driver archetype becomes so compelling. In the criminal hierarchy, the Driver is pretty low on the ladder. The driver remains ignorant to many details of the heist, sometimes by choice, only caring about the getaway. In a sense, the Driver is a tool, no more sentient than the vehicle they employ.

It’s here that the Driver must conform to the world of crime, which often conflicts with their morals or rebel. The Driver is the working class crook at the mercy of a tyrannical employer. Through the Driver, we experience the catharsis of rejecting our boss and finding freedom from the weight of capitalist systems. Even crooks must operate in the system of capitalism, and even they are exploited by a form of ruling class. Baby makes his escape and pays his price to society, ultimately earning his freedom and the right to keep moving forward.

The Existential Dread of WHEELMAN

WHEELMAN BABY DRIVER

For each of these Drivers, the road is a young man’s game. The freedom they seek on the asphalt is the liberation of youth and romance. This is what makes Jeremy Rush’s WHEELMAN a unique entry to this genre. Here, our Wheelman (Frank Grillo) is a career criminal fresh out of jail and indebted to the mobsters who financially provided for his family while he was on the inside. The Wheelman is worn down and anxious about his return to the criminal underworld. He is forced to put aside his gut instincts on a job for the Handler (Slaine) that immediately goes wrong.

Rush makes the audience feel the same claustrophobic dread as the Wheelman by keeping the camera mostly in the car. The vehicle feels more like a four-door coffin as the Wheelman is beset by forces all chasing after the money stashed in his trunk. In a way, the Wheelman feels like a look into a dark future for Baby. He is a man trapped by the sins of the past who cannot escape them no matter how many miles he puts under his tires.

The tragedy of the Driver is that he can never truly find freedom. The Driver will always be one with the road and forced to keep moving. In the case of the Wheelman, he temporarily managed to stop. He settled down with a wife and had a kid, but the life of the Driver forced him out of his stationary life.

The Wheelman, like all the Drivers before him, finds himself trapped by the unseen masters controlling his fate. In Camus’ THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS, he discusses the paradox of freedom:

“Knowing whether or not man is free involves knowing whether he can have a master. The absurdity peculiar to this problem comes from the fact that the very notion that makes the problem of freedom possible also takes away its meaning.”

In other words, we cannot understand freedom without understanding its opposite. How can we know if we are free if we have not experienced subjugation? The Driver is always a slave to the criminal enterprise he works within. In the case of the Wheelman, he is still trapped by his past choices. When the job goes bad, gangsters threaten his ex-wife (Wendy Moinz). The Wheelman seeks a freedom that he cannot attain until he recognizes his ability to take control.

When the Wheelman uses the money as a bargaining chip, he manages to outsmart his adversary into his own demise. In the end, the Wheelman reunites his daughter and his ex-wife but leaves the two of them behind. The Wheelman’s existential tragedy is that his freedom can only be found in isolation. Escaping the masters of his criminal past means leaving behind his family. Like all Drivers, he cannot stop. He must keep moving.

The Long Dusty Road

The reemergence of the Driver archetype over the last few years is not all that surprising. The car and the open road are one of the few pieces of technology in our world that have kept their basic form for the last century. The Driver is our way of connecting to the road through cinema. In 2017, the constant noise of the endless information stream makes the solitude of the open road appealing. The Drivers are wanderers, loners, and above all, dreamers. In their rebellion against their criminal handlers, we see our own struggle with daily obstacles and tribulations.

We each want to break free from our personal existential prisons. It’s in the Drivers that we can live those fantasies. Through them, we remind ourselves the value of making it through each day and the victory in simply staying in motion.

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