The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE DRIVER | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - THE DRIVER

the driver review
A police detective sets a trap for an elusive getaway driver.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Walter Hill

Starring: Ryan O'Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Ronee Blakley, Matt Clark, Joseph Walsh, Rudy Ramos

the driver poster

In the great New York car chases of 1970s Hollywood (The French Connection; The Seven-Ups), the bustling streets prove a menace to the heroic cop in pursuit of criminals. While the crims don’t care if they crash into that woman pushing a pram or run over the fruit seller whose watermelons just got splattered all over their windscreen, the cop has to look out for the general public. With his 1978 magnum opus The Driver, Walter Hill flips this dynamic on its head. His car chases don’t play out on the teeming streets of rush hour NYC but on the empty boulevards of nocturnal Los Angeles. This time it's the criminal who is at a disadvantage with nowhere to hide. Unable to shake off two pursuing cop cars, the movie's antihero, a getaway driver named in the credits as simply The Driver (Ryan O'Neal), decides to challenge them to a game of chicken. He knows it's a game he'll win, that the cops will swerve out of his way at the last moment. The cops aren't willing to die for their job, whereas The Driver is, because he lives for his job.

As the police detective on his tail points out, The Driver has nothing else going on in his life but his work. He doesn't seem to spend his money, living in an unfurnished hovel and wearing the same couple of cheap polyester suits. A more conventional movie might reveal that he's collecting his earnings to put his kid sister through college, or because he's in debt to the mob. But Hill's film is a stripped down thriller that takes its cues from the French crime movies of Jean-Pierre Melville, featuring men devoted to their work and nothing else.

the driver review

Another man devoted to his work is The Detective (Bruce Dern). He knows The Driver is responsible for the LAPD's inability to catch the perps behind a recent spate of bank jobs, but he's too quick to catch him. Like Wile E. Coyote, he figures that if he can't chase this Roadrunner, he'll set a trap and lie in wait. The Detective's equivalent of a fake tunnel painted on the side of a cliff is to blackmail captured bank robber Glasses (Joseph Walsh) into enlisting The Driver to serve as his getaway man. The plan is to lure The Driver right into the waiting hands of The Detective.

The Driver is a movie about cocky extroverts and confident introverts. The Detective is all bravado and bluster, and Dern plays him like a beatnik who somehow ended up a square. He's the classic maverick cop, working outside the rules to get the job done. Hill interrogates this idea through The Detective's underling, Red Plainclothesman (Matt Clark), who disapproves of The Detective's tactics. Red Plainclothesman has a wife and kid, and wants to keep his head down until he can draw his pension (Hill wisely excised an opening scene that introduces RP as a rookie; it's far more effective if we believe he's been putting up with The Detective's BS for a few years by this point). The Detective might mock The Driver for his lack of a life, but it seems he's equally unburdened by any forces outside his occupation. These are two men who believe they're the smartest cookies in the jar. The Driver seems to know he's being set up by Glasses, but takes the job anyway, and we get the impression he's so confident that he wants to rub it in The Detective's face. The Detective is arrogant, but The Driver is confident. The Detective talks a lot of shit. The Driver is as silent as Valentino. Those who talk a lot are often masking insecurities. Those who don’t feel the need to speak usually have things sussed.

the driver review

Falling into the latter category is The Player (Isabelle Adjani), a young French woman who acted as the inside man for the film's opening heist. She might actually be the smartest cookie in this particular jar, and Hill uses her to slyly mock the conventions of the American cops and robbers genre. As she plays The Detective and The Driver off against one another, she wounds them in the way only a pretty French girl can, finding out what they value and making fun of it. When The Detective tries to pull his Bad Cop routine on her, she simply looks at him as though he's something she just stepped in (in the way only a pretty French girl can) and his macho shell cracks for a moment that suggests were it not for his badge he'd be tempted to knock her out. She's even crueller to The Driver. When he refuses to work a second job with her, she mocks the only thing she can find in his sparse apartment, the "cowboy music" he listens to on a small transistor radio, his only connection with humanity.

Making The Player French isn't some random choice, it's a clear nod to how the filmmakers of the French New Wave deconstructed American genre pictures. Like those Gallic directors, The Player has contempt for America, but she also seems to be seduced by it. A more conventional movie would have her become The Driver's love interest, but The Player is more interested in money and survival. Yet there's still a tension between The Driver and The Player, though they're unwilling to act on any physical feelings they might harbour, lest they jeopardise the bigger game they're playing. Plus, they've been around the block enough times to know they can't trust anyone in this underworld.

Hill might be bucking conventions, but unlike Melville, he's still an American action director and The Driver features three of the best automotive action set-pieces of the '70s (and that's really saying something). There's the opening pursuit, homaged by Nicolas Winding Refn in Drive; a climactic chase through LA's iconic 2nd street tunnel (also seen in THX 1138, Blade Runner and The Terminator, to name but a few of the movies that have utilised it); and best of all, a bravura sequence in which The Driver proves his chops to Glasses by treating his vehicle like a stock car in an elevated car park. The latter is a classic example of defining character through action, and it tells us a lot more about The Driver and his worldview than any of the sparse dialogue he's given. The Driver has an almost Nietzschean superiority complex, considering himself an ubermensch in the LA underworld. He loves his job, but he hates the sort of lowlifes it forces him to fraternise with.

the driver review

Hill likely saw how Kubrick employed O'Neal in Barry Lyndon, getting the best from the limited actor by giving him as little dialogue as possible (in Kubrick's film, O'Neal is far better as the sullen Lyndon of the film's second half than as the cocky young pup we initially encounter). Despite O'Neal's very American pretty boy looks, he's transformed into a Melvillean antihero – all he needs is a trenchcoat. As The Player, Adjani is similarly given few lines, as Hill recognises that she can say more with a pout than many actresses could with an impassioned monologue. There's an entire film occurring off screen in which The Player is the protagonist, Hill keeping us guessing as to just what she's up to. Is she an innocent seduced by criminality or a femme fatale who has been waiting for the sort of opportunity now presented by The Driver and The Detective? Frankly, I don't think you cast Adjani if it's the former (it's easy to imagine Hill making this movie with Charles Bronson in the lead, in which case Jill Ireland would have been The Player and the character would have lost all of her ambiguous shading). The showy roles are tellingly given to the arrogant extrovert characters – Dern's The Detective, constantly bigging himself up while putting down others, and Teeth (Rudy Ramos), an associate of Glasses whose arrogance threatens to ruin the endeavours of everyone else (I've always thought Brian de Palma was referencing Teeth through his character of Benny Blanco in Carlito's Way, right down to the train station finale).

Ever since the '90s heyday of Tarantino and his clones, it's become a tiresome cliché to deconstruct crime movies in a postmodern manner. Hill's film is two decades older but still feels fresher and more vital than any of its '90s descendants, likely because it was both dissecting a contemporary filmic landscape while understanding it had to appeal to the people who were buying tickets for such movies. It's a very smart film, but also a very thrilling movie, a rollercoaster that can be relished in the moment and contemplated weeks later. The Walter Hill of this era made bubblegum movies, but they gave you so much to chew on you never wanted to spit them out.

The Driver
 is in UK/ROI cinemas from November 11th and Home Ent on December 5th.