Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In short: The Driver (1978)

A nameless man, let's call him The Driver (Ryan O'Neal), works as a highly successful hired-gun escape car driver for various criminals, if he deigns those criminals to be professional enough for him. The Driver doesn't like guns much, or rather, the people he works for actually shooting their guns, he's big on punctuality, as well as his prospective partners not being fools that'll get him killed or caught. In exchange for reasonable manners and a rather exorbitant fee, the Driver provides his business partners with near-miraculous escape driving that is too controlled to be called crazy, and highly successful.

So successful that a police Detective (Bruce Dern) has become rather obsessed with Driver, whom he dubs "Cowboy", and is willing to use highly unorthodox - even for a policeman who conducts all of his business, even interrogations, in a bar and a security van - methods to catch his prey. The Detective is even willing to press a small-time robber (Joseph Walsh) and his small gang consisting of exactly the kind of people Driver doesn't like to work with into organizing a bank robbery with Driver as the prospective escape driver.

Things get complicated and violent soon for Driver.

Walter Hill directed The Driver, his second feature film, in the middle of that phase of his career - ending after 1985's Streets of Fire - when he could do no wrong, and every film he made came out as some kind of classic.

In The Driver's case, it's a crime movie that pares every element of its plot down to its archetypal form, with characters that are nameless representation of their functions with no actual backstory even suggested (Hill often seems to prefer archetypes to characters). In this context, a film like The Driver actually looks like the Platonic Ideal of an 80s movie despite being made at the tail end of the 70s. Here, the hyper-realism and conscious grittiness of the older era turns into cool stylisation and a filmic language so composed (highly fitting for a main character who is always in control of himself when he is behind the wheel of a car) even the film's most chaotic car chases never look chaotic.

There's a distance between Hill's camera - and with it the audience - and the things it depicts that could - and later on, in different films, did - kill a film through its sheer lack of emotionality but here, this distance is exactly the point, as it mirrors Driver's cold, possibly sociopathic (really, he's closer to Westlake's Stark than most of the characters in actual Stark adaptations are) distance that enables him to live the life he leads in the way he leads it. The audience does share in Driver's emotions, it's just that he doesn't have many.

Ryan O'Neal is quite a clever bit of stuntcasting for a role that turns his weaknesses, an aura of professionalism and emptiness and the inability to emote convincingly, into the central points of his performance. And say what you will against O'Neal, he does hold his void-like ground against Dern and Isabelle Adjani, both much more classically able actors.

Oh yeah, the night car chases under neon lights are pretty great, too.

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