The Driver


Walter Hill’s 1978 thriller is one of those movies that’s managed to affect popular culture without being that well known to the general public. Not only is it a fine example of the Neo-Noir movie and a load bearing pillar of the LA Noir sub-genre that eventually spawned such masterpieces as Michael Mann’s Heat (not that he needed much help), but it’s directly influenced the works of Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright and Nicholas Winding Refn and even provided the visual backbone of several successful video games like Driver. Simply put – no The Driver, no GTA.
But what exactly is it that makes this movie so special despite it sinking without a trace at the US box office and incurring the rancor of 70’s critics that’s caused it to handbrake turn it’s way into belatedly being one of the coolest crime movies of its era?
Hop in, don’t bother with a seat belt (no one else in the film does) and brace yourself – we’re going for a ride.


We’re introduced to The Driver as he boosts a car and patently sits waiting after parking his ride outside a casino. Sure as shit, the alarm bells start ringing and two armed robbers emerge clutching pistols and bags of recently stolen loot and as they pile into the back of his car, it becomes time for the Driver to earn his fee by making the LAPD sniff his skid marks (left by the tyres, you jackass!). It becomes apparent that the Driver is obviously the best at what he does and has never been caught which is something that grinds the gears of the morally murky Detective who is desperate to bag this cowboy if it’s the last thing he ever does.
Further complicating matters is the woman the credits only refers to as The Player, a demure French woman who clearly saw the Driver’s face during the bank job and was subsequently bought off by the dashing getaway man himself so she would finger him during a line up. However, there remains an undeniable spark between them even though their relationship seeming has no use for names, backstories or even casual converastion, but she is drawn to his contradictory nature (he hates guns) and eclectic moral code.
Meanwhile, the Dectective is planning something radical in order to land his sunglasses wearing white whale and to the discomfort of his peers, he arrests a heist gang but promises to let them off if they can set up another robbery and hire the Driver to be their wheel man, but instead of directing him to their hideout, the Driver would deliver himself right into the arms of the LAPD.
However, the gang – made up if a trio of lugs only know as Glasses, Teeth and Fingers – aren’t exactly as trustworthy as the Detective was counting on and so a high octane game of cat and mouse occurs that sees the suspicious players turn on each other with an attache case stuffed full of cash as the prize…


Scripted so lean, doctors would scramble to hook it up to a saline drip, The Driver is an arresting crime flick that ruthlessly jettisons as many elements of storytelling as it can in order to present one of the most stripped back action thrillers I’ve ever seen. Not one of the characters are referenced by an actual name and are all given monikers such as The Driver, The Detective and The Player that give them all the feel of game pieces being maneuvered around a board by its hyper-focused writer/director who knowingly trades in archetypes and enigmas over three-dimentional characterization in order to translate the empty, stylized world these characters screech through in a handbrake turn. Basically, these guys are like the shark from Jaws or the Joker from The Dark Knight, they don’t have backstories or complex motivations – they just are.
While inhabiting such pure beings might initially seem like a thankless task, Hill’s cast prove more than up to the task when making the nameless cast feel like biological organisms instead of the glorified mannequins they could have so easily have become. Ryan O’Neal infuses those Love Story good looks with an intense stillness that’s so unbearably cool, hes one of the rare humans who can stride around with the top four buttons of his shirt undone at all hours of the day without looking like a total ass-hat. Combating O’Neal’s selective use of words is Bruce Dern’s hyper verbal Detective who isn’t above warping the law completely out of shape in order to get his claws into his prey as he pressures, threatens and assaults people to bend to his will for his single minded purpose. There’s a fascinating comparison between the two men because as their demeanor couldn’t be more different, they both are also incredibly similar due to the fact that they don’t just live their jobs – they essentially are their jobs.


The other characters are essentially pawns to be moved around Hill’s script in order to manipulate these two adversaries into the final endgame, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less important. Isabelle Adjani’s heavily implied escort may not be much more than a full pair of lips and a bottomless pair of eyes, but the tangible magnetism between her and the Driver is still tangible despite being almost completely unspoken and the trio of unhinged goons enlisted by the Detective benefit from the 70’s era of casting some genuinely shifty looking dudes. In fact, the moment when Teeth cold-bloodedly murders the Driver’s connection (named – unsurprisingly – The Connection) with the old shot-in-the-face-through-a-pillow tricks would be the most shocking parts of the movie of it wasn’t for some of the coolest car chases ever captured on film.
Comparisons to Bullett are inevitable, but Hill infuses his anarchic automobile actions scenes with different personalities as to distinguish them from become just one big mass of squealing tyres and crunching metal. The first is your standard showing off of the heroes prowess, while a standout second scene features our lead destroys Glasses’ car piece by piece as he roars around a weirdly deserted car park, deliberately clipping posts with surgical precision. However, it’s the final sequence that sees our leads rip the highways of LA a new drag strip as the Driver and the Player attempt to chase down Teeth after he steals the key to the locker the money is in and vehicular carnage has never been so sweet.


There is an argument that The Driver is maybe a bit too lean and the fact that it’s very much a movie kind of movie means that there’s virtually no real connection with the characters – but this is all by design. Hill, with his neon drenched streets and esoteric leads is toying with the very structure of the genre, deliberately pairing it down until only the bare bones remain in order to obtain fully mythic proportions.
One of the best car chase movies ever made, it’s a shame that the world in general has never had that fact fully… driven home.


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