The Driver July 5, 2016
Because this is the kind of film that has the audacity to respond to its own artifice. The characters don’t have names: they are things, carrying around labels like, ahem, The Driver, The Detective, etc., and they don’t exist to do anything besides what their title entails. Conversations ring with the pulp chintziness of a tête-à-tête between a femme fatale and an anti-hero circa 1946; the performances are not so much performances as they are imitations of classic character types.
Which is why The Driver’s relative success is all the more impressive. It survives as an exercise in attitude, sometimes appearing to be, in itself, a comment on a genre that oftentimes struggles to stand above the tragedies that come along with sinking to formula. In the midst of its observation are we left with a lean, mean, and exquisitely tough thriller, intelligent in its crafting and more than a little exceptional in its delivery. It should be slight, pretentious even. But it concocts an astonishingly slick atmosphere Nicolas Winding Refn would kill to recreate, and it’s hopeless for us to withstand its roguish magnetism.
The Driver finds its titular figure in Ryan O’Neal, a defining actor of his generation whose then-waning popularity perfectly suits the world weary persona of the man he’s playing. His Driver is a man we’ve perhaps always dreamed of one day living as — a rebel on the wrong side of the law with the good sense to never get caught. He specializes in driving getaway cars, an unconventional job that pays off both monetarily and in reputation. He’s one of the best in his slim field, and is gaining notoriety on both sides of the tracks.
The Driver is provided with all his jobs by The Connection (Ronee Blakley), a slinkily confident small-time crime boss, and his given his alibis by The Player (Isabelle Adjani), with whom he appears to have some sort of romantic interest (though we never really find out if such a notion is embedded in the truth). He could very well continue with his sinful career until the day he dies. But with the viciously ambitious The Detective (Bruce Dern) committed to stopping him dead in his tracks, The Driver’s days of perpetuating neighborhood crime could be coming to a close.
But it’s clear that these said days will never come to a close — these characters, all memorably portrayed by a satisfactorily disparate ensemble, will always have a place in the movies. There will always be a man like The Driver, a man like The Detective, and there will always be women of the distinct brands of The Player and The Connection. An endless game of cat and mouse is something we can always expect in the thriller genre, particularly in ones that get their jollies through car chases and badass attitudes.
So maybe The Driver would be more tiresome, more eye-rollingly predictable, if not for Walter Hill’s coordinating of it all. Here is an auteur with a clear-eyed appreciation for film noir, for suspense, and for action. Unlike so many filmmakers who try to get away with a wispily tense ambience, Hill is an assured director and an assured storyteller, so much so that we’re sure we’re witnessing something original and not totally rehashed. And since The Driver is, essentially, a greatest hits collection of workable tropes, that’s something to be proud of. B+
1 Hr., 29 Mins.
f a disaffectedly ruthless sheen can signify cinematic cool in this perpetually uncool day and age, then 1978’s The Driver, a bare bones take on the action genre, earns its place next to deservedly godly classics like Bullitt and Dirty Harry. Granted, it’s more style than it is substance — making for stark contrast from the aforementioned masterworks — but The Driver, with its dizzying car chases and noiry exchanges, is devilish in the way it gets away with its sensuous self-regard.