The Unexplored Existential Angst of ‘Night Drive’

The Unexplored Existential Angst of ‘Night Drive’
Photo Credit: Dark Sky Films

What you need to know

Between the trendy conceits of time travel and taxi drivers taken hostage, ‘Night Drive’ is an original and weird tale.

LA ride-share driver Russell (AJ Bowen) picks up his last fare of the evening, a young Australian named Charlotte (Sophie Dalah). They chat a bit, and she’s feisty and foul-mouthed, at one point calling Russell’s white Porsche SUV a “douchewagon.” Three minutes into Brad Baruh and Meghan Leon’s 82-minute Night Drive, which premiered in North America on August 6, she buys out the rest of his night with two Benjamins, and we start to wonder if he’s just another taxi driver taken hostage – like in Collateral (2004) but with a manic pixie nightmare girl in place of a silver fox. In fact, it’s much weirder. Spoilers ahead.

Charlotte rushes back out of her first destination with a strongbox in hand and two dudes in pursuit; odd, but not too out there. The first sign that things are really off is when Russell accidentally hits a man (Scott Poythress), and Charlotte, checking on him, mutters, “Fuck, he’s still breathing.” She also seems to know his name and, when after a few plot twists they end up at his house, what’s in his fridge. She checks her watch all the time. When Russell asks her age, she nonchalantly asks, “What year is it?” (It’s 2018, and she’s 22).

That’s right — she’s a time traveler. It’s a perennially trendy film conceit. Palm Springs (2020), to take a recent example, asks what you would do if your own personal Groundhog Day (1993) had no exit clause. Night Drive, written by Leon, asks: What if the remote in Click (2006) had a rewind button and you could change your past with no repercussions?

Charlotte treats it all as a game, killing people with no remorse, and betraying only some disgust at dismembering a victim before burial. Every time Russell objects, she just says, “We can fix it.” And she can. But though reality may have no permanence for her, it does for everyone else. The film itself is on Russell’s side; as shot by Baruh and edited by Leon, it highlights the nighttime cityscape and lingers on sensory details, as if to emphasize the importance of the passing moment and its wealth of sensory detail.

Night Drive is the latest entry in the cinema of the video game aesthetic. Different from films merely set in video game worlds or adapted from video games, video game aesthetic cinema refers to films that follow video game logic. Aquaman (2018) and Serenity (2019) are the primary examples, the former an adventure game and the latter a collection of minigames. Night Drive is Grand Theft Auto (1997-) as seen from the viewpoint of a non-playable character, or NPC: Russell. Charlotte even says at one point that a fellow player of “the game” got arrested for assault before making it to the time machine, so she’s careful not to attract too much attention — much as how in GTA attracting too much attention from the fuzz makes it hard to get things done.

Night_Drive_4_-_72dpi_RGB
Photo Credit: Dark Sky Films

The greatest danger of playing the open-world GTA isn’t normalizing violence, as some pearl-clutching conservatives fear, but getting bored. Longtime players often rack their brains for interesting things to do. But unlike a game, you can’t turn off your life and do something else. Hence, Charlotte’s attitude.

The film’s time machine is a room that brings people into their body wherever it is at the time of their choosing, which therefore can’t be before their birth. It effectively makes them immortal, and Charlotte admits that over the years people “all blend together” in her mind. The curse of immortality, as The Old Guard (2020) shows, is that you don’t die.

And the curse of knowing about a time machine is having that knowledge itself. At the door to the room in which it’s housed, Russell snatches the operating mechanism from Charlotte to go back to the start of their evening together and kill her, putting an end to her malicious shenanigans. In one sense, he puts her out of her misery.

In another sense, he takes the curse of knowledge upon himself. Like most people, he has regrets. Now he doesn’t have to have them. Even if he never uses it, the time machine will always present itself as a possible way out, like opium to a recovering addict. And like all addictive pleasures, it won’t really make him happy, as Charlotte proves. He has unwittingly become the newest player of the game.

But like Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), the film doesn’t want you to think too deeply about its depressing premise. Instead, the focus is on what exactly Charlotte’s plans are (we never find out), whether Russell will make it out alive (he does), and how cool the lights and the pop-rock music by Michael McQuilken are (they’re pretty cool). Almost as cool as the film’s poster.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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