A few years ago, I attended an anniversary screening of Chinatown (1974) at which screenwriter Robert Towne, producer Robert Evans, and star Jack Nicholson shared memories of making the classic detective story. Not having heard Nicholson speak extemporaneously before, I was surprised by how erudite he was but also by how obtuse he was. Though clearly steeped in esoteric artistic theories, he wasn’t particularly good at getting his ideas across. Perhaps that’s why he’s thrived as an actor, using other people’s writing as a prism for focusing his intellect. And perhaps that’s why he hasn’t thrived as a director, despite having helmed three features thus far. Each of Nicholson’s directorial efforts contains interesting ideas, but all are aesthetic and narrative jumbles.
This is especially true of Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said, which is a bizarre drama involving college basketball, insanity, sexual obsession, student rebellion, and several other subjects. The movie is clearly about something, but Nicholson’s storytelling is so unfocused that it’s difficult to identify the underlying themes.
William Tepper stars as Hector, a college-hoops star wracked with some sort of indecipherable angst. (In a laughably obvious moment, he opines, “I feel so disconnected.”) He’s involved in a sexual relationship with Olive (Karen Black), the undeserving victim of his frequent mood swings; Olive’s other lover is an older man played by Towne in one of his only acting roles. Making matters even more fraught, Hector’s best friend is Gabriel (Michael Margotta), a student revolutionary feigning insanity to dodge the Vietnam draft—and losing his marbles in reality.
The script was based on a novel by Jeremy Larner (The Candidate) and credited to Larner and Nicholson, though Towne and Terrence Malick reportedly made uncredited contributions. Similarly, the movie has four (!) credited editors. So, whether the unfathomable nature of the story is the result of too many cooks in the kitchen or simply of Nicholson’s reach exceeding his grasp, the sum effect is the same: Drive, He Said feels like several movies stitched together, forming a haphazard mosaic.
In fact, much of Drive, He Said comprises people making random declarations, like this narcissistic gem spoken by Towne: “I don’t think I want to talk about this as much as I thought I did.” Every so often, something affecting happens, like Black and Tepper forming an emotional connection in bed, and every so often, something coherent happens—but it’s a measure of this movie’s peculiarity that the most rational scenes involve Bruce Dern, who plays Hector’s coach. When one of the most deliciously unhinged actors of the ’70s gets relegated to straight-man status, something’s gone terribly wrong.
The last half-hour of the movie gets awfully mean-spirited and weird, when Gabriel starts to completely lose his shit. First, he freaks out in an Army induction center, and then he tries to rape Olive. Eventually, a nude Gabriel breaks into a college science lab and releases assorted insects, reptiles, and vermin, “liberating” fellow prisoners of the Man’s oppressive system. With its abundance of such oddly provocative moments, Drive, He Said is a heavy trip, but it’s hard to say whether the trip actually goes anywhere.
Drive, He Said: FREAKY