High Octane Cinema: The Driver (1978)
A filmmaker can follow the rules or structure of a genre, but Walter Hill shears any superfluous filler and reduces his candid genre films to their essence, and in taking an abstract approach to the rigorous stoicism set by Jean-Pierre Melville, Hill crafts a technically riveting display of diffused action.
Hill’s slick, no-nonsense direction is so fast and tight, the characters so icily realized they don’t even have names, and why would they? They’re defined by what they do. In the director's tradition of exploring masculine rituals and dutiful individuals bound to their code of ethics, The Driver outflanks its counterparts in the opening chase sequence, and the film keeps upping the ante throughout. The stillness of the frame, the fixed camera compositions, Hill’s a rigorously terse craftsman. Instead of subscribing to the “more is better” line of thinking - here, the car maneuvers become more intricate, the chases are faster, and the titular driver destroys a car by systematically crashing into it inside of a car park with mathematical precision.
Why does The Driver do it? Not because they committed any direct wrongdoings on his person, not an act of self-defense, but because they offended his sense of propriety. Ryan O’Neal’s Driver characters are dedicated to a code, it might be vague, unexplained, but he stands for something, what, I’m not sure. But in the tradition of dutiful action revisionism it’s not about the details of characters, but the fine points of aesthetic mechanics.
It will no undoubtedly sound reductive to say that The Driver doesn’t have a soul, but it’s an oddly flattering way to describe the film; by levelling the atmosphere where cars, roads, and architecture are the canvas for the central action, why try to breathe life into the inanimate objects when you can calibrate the characters metaphysical status to represent their role as it’s relevant to the movie and its structure.
Ryan O’Neal’s star status is wrongfully down to his role in Love Story, but with Barry Lyndon, Paper Moon, and The Driver can we somehow rewrite that reputation? His stoic demeanor is so utterly imbalanced that it makes us cultivate our own fictions about his character. If only O’ Neal had more chances to work with directors like Walter Hill. The internationally affable Isabelle Adjani is an asset regardless where she is, her icily cherubic features, and poise makes her all the more mysterious and implacable. Her character The Player is mysterious and dignified, Adjani has a powerful, Garbo-esque screen presence with such a piercing gaze and beauty; but she’s never sexualized, or rendered into a love interest. Bruce Dern’s penchant for wild and frantic performances is transformed into a subtly sociopathic cop turned criminal (it could be inverted?) is creepily volatile.
This is finely packaged modernist cinema. The Driver wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the movies that came before it. The same can be said for the movies that followed; we wouldn’t have Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and if Edgar Wright is still an awesomely referential film geek extraordinaire, there’s a good chance a little bit of The Driver will be in Baby Driver. In the evolution of genre films, you trace what came before; tough film noir from John Huston and the chamber westerns of Budd Boetticher were venerated by French directors of the nouvelle vague, namely resistance fighter who chose to direct under his nom de guerre Jean-Pierre Melville. His phlegmatic heist/crime titles, Le Cercle Rouge, Le Deuxième Souffle and Le Samouraï inspired Michael Mann, John Woo, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and of course Walter Hill. Now we have the all-absorbing movie sponge that is Edgar Wright, part of the next generation of maverick filmmakers.