Fast, stylish, and taut, The Driver is an audacious experiment in cinematic minimalism. Eschewing conventional elements like backstory, character names, and emotional life, writer-director Walter Hill presents an action movie comprised merely of situations and forward momentum; the fact that a certain kind of ambiguous character study emerges from this Spartan storytelling speaks not only to Hill’s craftsmanship but also to the depth of his commitment to themes of individuality and male identity.
The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) is a Los Angeles wheelman who freelances for crooks, providing his expensive services during high-speed getaways. The Driver’s reputation has spread beyond the criminal community to the world of law enforcement, so the Detective (Bruce Dern) devotes himself to catching the Driver. Caught between them is the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a casino gambler who witnessed the Driver performing a crime but refuses to ID him for the Detective’s benefit. When these characters converge, the Detective forces a situation that puts the Driver in league with reckless thieves willing to betray anyone and everyone for the right price.
Taking place mostly at night, and set in evocative locations like a cavernous warehouse and L.A.’s iconic Union Station, The Driver is a sleek underworld poem. Nobody trusts anybody, and yet people must rely on each other to get their jobs done, so disconnected souls rise and fall based on their luck in picking the right partners. For viewers who buy into Hill’s singular approach, The Driver is a metaphorically rich meditation on the bleak moral relativism shared by killers. Yet others might find The Driver pretentious and vacuous, merely a symphony of attractive actors, cool shots, and exciting sequences.
For me, the beauty of the picture is that it justifies both reactions—it’s a deep statement if you’re inclined to explore its enigmatic textures, and it’s empty fun if all you want to do is enjoy its visceral pleasures.
Cast for their surface qualities rather than their acting chops, O’Neal manifests a cynical swagger that works well in this context, while Adjani’s dark beauty suits Hill’s nocturnal aesthetic. Dern manages to slip in a bit of characterization despite the script’s restraint, so he steals the movie by dint of presenting a recognizable personality. However, the acting in The Driver is really just part of Hill’s overall palette, because this is the action movie as art piece—whenever Hill commences a chase scene or a tense standoff, he reveals his innate mastery of primal signifiers and visual economy. In his hands, a car zooming across a nighttime highway is a brushstroke across a canvas, and a fragment of dialogue is a world of implied psychology.
The Driver: GROOVY