Walter Hill’s 1978 crime-drama features some impressive car chases and a terrific performance from Bruce Dern as a cop on the hunt for an elusive getaway driver…
Walter Hill’s 1978 classic The Driver is set in Los Angeles where Ryan O’Neal is the mysterious titular character who drives getaway cars in robberies. It’s what he’s good at, it’s what defines him and it’s that talent which prevents him from being caught by the authorities. One day, whilst participating in the heist of a casino, the main witness, the illusive Player (Isabelle Adjani), is wanting his help for her own gain. However, the psychotic Detective (Bruce Dern) in charge of the investigation is obsessed in hunting him down and will not stop at nothing until he succeeds. To achieve his goal, he seeks out a gang that has robbed a supermarket and promises to “forgive” their heist if they help him to arrest the Driver in a bank robbery. But the Player helps the Driver to exchange the dirty money for her own needs.
The interesting thing about The Driver is that it’s clearly a B-Movie with a B-Movie type story (also by Walter Hill), especially as the whole concept of the Driver character is kind of existential in the same way as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, which the film’s plot elements are heavily influenced by. It’s also a film about the act of driving, and the loneliness about the long-distance driver. That existential idea that it’s just you and the wheel and the road. During the 1970’s, there were films out around that time that delved into the concepts about the ethos of driving; films like Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, and Taxi Driver defined the new wave of American cinema in the 70s, and many of them were tied up with the road and the act of driving. Walter Hill’s script is about the idea that somebody and their car can be somebody’s whole universe. That what they are is a driver who understands about how to get from point A to point B but yet not understanding everything else, and as things start to come into play, that’s what confuses them and messes up their lives. Of course, the film’s influence on Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive is now widely acknowledged among movie fans.
The film is held together by some terrific central performances: Ryan O’Neal captures the existential driver persona fantastically well, not saying much, and yet has a lot of deep anger and rage bubbling beneath his passive exterior. He resembles a latter-day James Dean, whose untouchable nature is threatened by Isabelle Adjani’s icy and yet vulnerable allure. Bruce Dern is pure dynamite as the unhinged Detective; he’s strange, twisted, dangerous, violent and borderline psychotic. Dern has always been sublime throughout his career in films like The Great Gatsby, Nebraska and Silent Running (Dern’s best performance), but he’s at the top of his game here and he clearly steals the show right under from O’Neal’s nose.
The film also has a very beautiful eye to it, as The Driver is clearly a film about LA and the cityscape, and Philip H. Lathrop’s gorgeous cinematography can be seen as a precursor to future films with shimmering cityscapes like Michael Mann’s Heat or William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA. The car chases embedded throughout the film have you immediately gripped and you stay gripped until they end, as you feel like you are in that car with the characters, feeling the pedal-to-the-metal action going on, and that clearly owes a debt to Friedkin’s extraordinary car chase in The French Connection.
What makes The Driver such a classic is that Walter Hill keeps things stripped down (the running length is classic Roger Corman 91 minutes) and yet keeping things simple. It is, in the end, the existential driver movie with explosions of incredibly gripping car action, beautiful cinematography, a terrifying turn by Bruce Dern, and at the centre of it, Ryan O’Neal’s minimalist performance. He’s clearly the archetype for characters like Ryan Gosling’s driver in Drive and George Clooney in The American. When it lets rip, it really lets rip. It’s clearly a film that has stood the test of time as an endearing cult classic.
Written by Ryan Pollard
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Walter Hill
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Ronee Blakley
Released: 1978 / Genre: Action/Drama / Country: USA / IMDB