Retro Review: The Driver

By: Daniel Reynolds

Since we’re in January, the time of the year where bad movies go to die (Zero Dark Thirty excepted), Daniel will be rolling out a series of retro reviews of some lesser known classic films. He wants to assure everyone that these films will probably be better than watching Broken City.


Never let it be said that I am a car guy. I don’t know how to fix any car things, I don’t read car magazines, I don’t particularly like auto racing,  and I definitely don’t post pictures on Facebook of me and my sweet ride (this may have more to do with the fact that I drive a 2003 Corolla, but still).

But, let me tell you, I do love driving. And perhaps even more so, I love driving movies, well-staged chase sequences and above all, those rebel knights of our age, the getaway wheelmen. Right off the top I’ll add, though, that while a lot of movies these days involve things chasing other things (seriously, a ton), very few manage to find the balance between action, emotional engagement and technical mastery that make a car chase worthwhile[1]. That being said, it was last year the bizarro genius Nicolas Winding Refn gave us the indelible Drive, a film stripped down to its propulsive essentials. It is the film equivalent of a tone poem, a haiku; it reveals multitudes in its smallest gestures and turns of phrase.

I was wildly impressed and consider Drive to be my favourite (and one of the best) movies of 2011. So you can imagine my delight when I finally got a chance to sit down with The Driver, Walter Hill’s 1978 film, and the obvious spiritual predecessor to Refn’s Drive.

The classic.

The classic.

There are three main people in The Driver: the Player, the Detective and, of course, the Driver, played by Isabelle Adjani, Bruce Dern and Ryan O’Neal, respectively. No, really, check the credits; they’re never given proper names. Oh sure, there are a couple of other people involved, like those no-goodniks known only as Glasses and Teeth, low-lifes looking for a payday and a chance to save their necks, but the film works too fast for them. Essentially, The Driver is not interested in making the usual emotional connection (not to be confused with the Connection; she’s in the cast, too). The film is more concerned with turning heads with a brilliant flash of style, a blast of action. But, the streamlining of the narrative does not rob the film of its dynamic resonance; no, like the satisfying victory of a road race, the Driver thrives off of the thrilling freedom it exhibits. The characters don’t have names, and yet you cheer the winner and wag a finger at the loser.

The Driver, the character I mean, is the best wheelman in the city. We see him, in a fearsome introductory night chase through Los Angeles, calmly do his thing; he is invincible. Then, there is the Player, she sees the Driver, watches him peel out during a getaway, and yet says nothing. Watch closely as Hill borrows lightly from the classic noir film, Le Samourai, about another silent, moody loner (this time, an assassin), by having the woman not identify our hero in a lineup. The Detective careens in, he is apoplectic, he knows that the Driver is his man. The delight of the film, much like its successor Drive, emerges as it slides, artfully, along an inevitable graceful arc of logic towards its conclusion.

There is no real romance in The Driver, though there is a definite smoulder to its scenes, an unspoken sensuality. Like the aforementioned Le Samourai, the women of The Driver act more as witnesses. Sure, they aide and abet the lead, but there is a reason these anti-heroes still work alone. Adjani, for her part, inspires me to all kinds of bad analogies between the exotic darkness of her eyes and the unforgiving roadway. She and O’Neal share, well, something; it remains unspoken. The most passionate character in the film is the obsessed Detective. And so, there is Dern, with his squirrely hair, and pinched voice; he’s the last of the wild west sheriffs, willing to do what it takes to get his man. It is Dern that injects enough life in the film, between chases that is, to keep scenes from becoming inert. He’s a live wire, working out of a police van just to keep himself closer to the street, to the action. In a film of smooth contours, he is the scratch in the paint.

The off-kilter bravado of Dern’s performance meets its perfect counterbalance by the nearly blank presence of O’Neal. Never one to overwhelm on screen, O’Neal brings a sad-eyed cool to the film that is dispassionate by design. Like  Alain Delon before and Ryan Gosling afterward, O’Neal stares soulfully into the middle distance, and fulfills the destiny of his role: that of the silent drifter, seemingly forever haunted, his emotions never fully expressed, even in victory.

The Player and the Driver. Human yet unreadable.

The Player and the Driver. Human yet unreadable.

So how does a movie that drains itself almost entirely of the typical signposts and exposition of a film still work to engage the audience? Well, despite my philosophical slant here, there is a cat and mouse plot coursing through the film. And, there are the breathtaking car chases with Hill’s aggressive camera capturing all of the sounds, lights and terrifying speed of urban pursuit. But still it is a film of types, grappling, plotting, moving, towards what? Money? Fame? Power? No, the Driver just is. He does. They all are. In some ways, like Steve Erickson’s Zeroville suggests, perhaps the Driver existed before the movie was even made, zooming through the endless streets, on and on in our imaginations. At the end of the film, the Detective holds out a briefcase, “You want it?”. The Driver walks away, wordlessly, there and gone and back again.

[1] Some recent exceptions include the muscular chase in Jack Reacher and the absolutely batshit insane chase sequence at the end of Fast Five. Now there is a scene that just goes for it; totally implausible, totally ridiculous and yet totally enjoyable. Also, Drive. But go back up top for my thoughts on that.

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