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.