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Drive Angry (2011) – And Hungry… And Horny…

August 15, 2011

Half an hour into Patrick Lussier’s uneven but ultimately likeable neo-grindhouse pseudo-exploitation film Drive Angry, there is a scene that manages to perfectly encapsulate what it is about this film that makes it both intensely silly and surprisingly interesting. In this scene, Nicolas Cage’s character John Milton is having sex with a waitress he picked up in an Oklahoma roadhouse. As the naked woman groans in pleasure and writhes around on the end of his (presumably massive) penis, Cage’s character stares impassively into space from behind a large pair of wrap-around shades. Despite being in mid coitus, Milton is fully dressed and smoking a (noticeably massive) cigar. He also has a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand. When a bunch of Satanists come crashing through the door hoping to kill Cage’s character, Cage calmly scoops up the waitress and proceeds to shoot them all dead without either spilling his drink or pulling out of the waitress. Drive Angry is a film about humanity’s unquenchable desire for pleasure. It is not enough for these characters to have sex, they also have to smoke cigars and drink hard liquor while they are doing it.  Nor is it enough for them to have exciting shoot-outs, they also have to have sex at the same time. Drive Angry is filled with characters that go to extraordinary lengths in order to satisfy their desires, but no matter how much fun, sex and excitement they have, there is always something more that needs doing.

Right from the opening scenes, Drive Angry crackles with a dirty, hysterical energy.  Within seconds of sitting down in a diner, a waitress propositions Milton who promptly snogs her, drinks a cup of coffee and then moans about insufficient sugar. Meanwhile, an obese cook is crudely groping Piper (Amber Heard), the diner’s other waitress. Furious at being groped, Piper angrily quits her job and drives home where she discovers her fiancée in bed with another woman. After physically throwing the other woman out of her house, Piper decides to settle matters with her fists, a decision that leads to her having to go on the run with Milton. Drive Angry’s characters inhabit a world where amazing sex and horrific violence are forever round the corner. It is not enough that Piper should discover her fiancée cheating on her, she has to walk in on her hugely muscular and tattooed fiancée as he is being straddled by a woman with large breasts.  Nor is it enough that Piper and her fiancée should get into a row over his infidelity, the pair have to get into a brutal fist-fight that results in one dead naked guy and Piper having to go on the run with Milton. These things have to happen because this is the nature of the world that Drive Angry depicts.  These are not characters with poor impulse control, they are characters with impossibly large impulses.

In an early paper entitled “‘Civilised’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness”, Sigmund Freud suggests that that human civilisation relies upon harnessing of humanity’s base desires:

Every individual has surrendered part of what is properly his, a portion of his unrestricted authority, some of the aggressive and vindictive inclinations of his personality; it is these contributions by individuals that make up the common cultural heritage of material and non-material possessions. – P. 90

Freud expands elsewhere upon what these ‘inclinations’ might be:

Human beings are not gentle creatures in need of love, at most able to defend themselves if attacked; on the contrary, they can count a powerful share of aggression among their instinctual endowments. Hence, their neighbour is not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to take out their aggression on him, to exploit his labour without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to take possession of his goods, to humiliate him and cause him pain, to torture and kill him. Homo homini lupus [Man is a wolf to man] – P. 48

By denying us the sex we want and the violence we crave, human society frustrates us and then invites us to channel those frustrations into the sorts of activities that help to further the values of the civilisation. In other words, humans only invented art and science because they were not allowed to cave-in each other’s skulls with tire irons. One of the nicest things about reading Freud is that his prose-style is very contingent in that many of his ideas are presented not as definitive positions but rather as tentative hypotheses.  This makes it easy to see the evolution of Freud’s thinking over time.  Indeed, because “‘Civilized’ Morality” is a comparatively early paper, it contains a rather dated and naïve faith in the possibility that genital sex within marriage might allow humanity’s based desires to be satisfied. While the paper does allow for fetishism (“perversion”) and homosexuality (“Inversion”), Freud presents these almost as glitches in a system that is mostly sound.  However, by the time that Freud sat down to write his book Civilization and its Discontents (1931), his thinking had manifestly taken a more pessimistic turn.

Civilization and its Discontents argues that the human libido is inherently insatiable. The insatiability of the human libido stems from the paradoxical fact that humans channel the energy created by their pent up frustrations into the creation of a super-ego that serves as a sadistic internal policeman or parental authority figure who is forever punishing the ego for its inappropriate desires. The more the super-ego punishes the ego, the more the ego yearns for release and the more the ego yearns for release, the more powerful the super-ego becomes. Even if one renounces all of one’s perverted desires, there is no escape from the sadism of the super-ego:

The more virtuous a person is, the sterner and more distrustful is his conscience, so the very people who have attained the highest degree of saintliness are in the end the ones who accuse themselves of being most sinful – P. 62

The characters in Drive Angry are what happens once you step outside of the repressive boundaries of human civilisation and set about satisfying your basest desires.  For the characters of Drive Angry, it is never enough to have sex… you have to have sex whilst shooting people at the same time.

Cage’s John Milton is an old school Southern badass.  When a life spent tumbling in and out of dangerous situations eventually caught up with him and he died, Milton was shipped off to Hell in order to atone for his sins. However, while in Hell, Milton was forced to watch his grieving daughter fall into the clutches of the louche Satanist and wannabe Messiah Jonah King. Quickly realising that King was nothing more than a dime-store sorcerer backed by a posse of redneck thugs, Milton’s daughter castrated King and went on the run.  After catching up with her, King murdered Milton’s daughter and turned her thigh-bone into a walking stick.  Feeling that this was insufficient as an act of vengeance, King decided to sacrifice Milton’s granddaughter to Satan at the next full moon. Horrified that his last link to Earth is about to be severed, Milton escapes from Hell and returns to Earth where he sets about hunting down King and his posse.

As Milton and Piper chase after King, they too are being chased by a mysterious figure known only as The Accountant (William Fichtner).  Seemingly invulnerable and clad in ugly office attire, The Accountant is hunting down Milton in order to return him to Hell. However, when as he learn about King’s plan to sacrifice a child in Satan’s name, he decided that his wider goals might be better served by allowing Milton to ‘do what he has to do’.

One of the more subtle and intriguing motifs that recurs throughout Civilization and its Discontents is the sense of strategic give and take in the battle between the ego and the super-ego. For example, as in his earlier paper, Freud suggests that the nuclear family constitutes a fairly stable social structure in which the needs of the ego and the demands of the ego might be satisfied.  However, he then goes on to explain how the desire for fellowship born of the family union then pushes people to try to make friends with other humans thereby opening themselves up to the repressive powers of the need to ‘fit in’ with the group. The strategic nature of these modes of social co-existence is made particularly clear when Freud addresses the issue of why a primitive man might want to join a society in the first place:

Primitive man was actually better off, because his drives were not restricted. Yet this was counterbalanced by the fact that he had little certainty of enjoying this good fortune for long. Civilized man has traded in a portion of his chances of happiness for a certain measure of security. – P. 51

In other words, by choosing to live outside of civilisation and spending all of his time on all fours sniffing other people’s bums (this is the idyll that Freud invokes), primitive man is receiving a lot of happiness but he is also running the risk of being eaten by a bear, starving to death or dying of the flu. By choosing to live inside civilisation, civilised man is receiving less happiness but his protected state means that his lesser source of happiness is likely to be more enduring. By seeking to minimise his potential losses (sources of unhappiness) while maximising his potential gains (indulging only in socially acceptable pleasures), civilised man can be said to be following what Decision Theorists refer to as a Maxmin theory.

The characters is Drive Angry appear larger than life because the strategy they have undertaken is a different one to one selected by most civilised people. Indeed, rather than seeking out a slow-but-steady trickle of pleasure with minimal sources of displeasure, Milton and the others pursue as much pleasure as possible and so ensure the risk of massive losses in the form of angry rednecks, demonic accountants, hideous car crashes and a mightily pissed-off Satan. However, while all of the film’s characters (with the notable exception of Satan who is described as a very polite and well-read man who is quite content to serve as warden in the great universal prison that is Hell) demand and receive impossible amounts of pleasure and excitement, none of them are particularly happy or anywhere close to being content.

The strategic failure of Drive Angry’s characters is evident in the actions of Jonah King and John Milton.  King is obviously nothing but a backwoods bully who has used his ruthlessness and charisma to achieve wealth and power.  However, despite possessing money and an army of devoted servants, he is not content with what he has and so he decides to bring about Hell-on-Earth through human sacrifice, a plan that results only in a serious attitude adjustment at the hands of The Accountant who serves as a sort of pan-dimensional super-ego. The same is true of John Milton who ends the film by returning to Hell.  Despite having avenged his daughter, saved his granddaughter and set up decent lives for his few remaining friends, Milton makes it clear that he intends to escape from Hell as soon as possible.  Apparently, having done ‘what he had to do’, Milton realised that there were other things that needed doing. This is the essence of Man’s insatiability.

An interesting re-statement of the theme behind Drive Angry features in David Foster Wallace’s famous article on cruising “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. Having detailed the depths of the pampering he received at the hands of the shipping line, Wallace begins to notice a degree of irritability creeping into his daily routine as he starts to be annoyed at the size of the free club sandwiches and the fact that they take fifteen minutes to arrive at his cabin.  The problem, Wallace concludes, is that it is human nature to never be satisfied:

The infantile part of me is insatiable – in fact its whole essence or dasein or whatever lies in it’s a priori insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upwards until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction. – P. 317

Wallace’s suggestion that there is a homeostatic point of ‘terrible dissatisfaction’ not only takes us back to my suggestion that concepts from Decision Theory might prove useful in understanding Freud’s model of the libido, it also goes some way to explaining the appeal of films such as Drive Angry.  Indeed, by acting out a more high-risk solution to the problem of the hungry ego and revealing it to be just as fruitless as the more traditional one that most human opt for, Drive Angry is not only revealing itself to be a deeply humane film, it is also consoling us by letting us know that our failure to shoot people in the face is in no way hindering out quest for happiness.  The message of Drive Angry is identical to that of Civilization and its Discontents: To be human is to desire and to desire is to never be satisfied.

2 Comments
  1. August 15, 2011 9:26 pm

    Have you written anything about Buddhism — wherein the goal is to eliminate desire itself?

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  2. August 22, 2011 8:22 am

    Hi AR :-)

    No, never written about Buddhism. I’ve read some Buddhist thought but it was mostly metaphysics rather than breathing exercises and morality.

    Like

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