Saturday 6 August 2016

Movie Review: The Driver (1978)

A minimalist chase thriller, The Driver has next to no plot but plenty of style. A sense of dark cool permeates the movie, punctuated by quite brilliant car pursuit scenes.

In Los Angeles, The Driver (Ryan O'Neal) is a mysterious man of few words who specializes in driving getaway cars for gangsters committing hold-ups. After helping a couple of criminals evade multiple police cars in a high speed chase after a casino robbery, one of the casino customers known only as The Player (Isabelle Adjani) refuses to identify The Driver, much to the disgust of The Detective (Bruce Dern).

With The Driver's reputation growing, The Detective grows more obsessed with capturing him. He sets a trap by convincing a group of low-life thugs to hire the Driver through his trusted Connection (Ronee Blakley) for a bank job that is really an elaborate set-up.

Directed and written by Walter Hill, The Driver prospers on its nothingness. Mixing film noir elements with a taut focus on three nameless people, the film thrives on a vacuum of dialogue. When The Driver and The Player speak they are limited to clipped outbursts of three to five words, and while the film often teeters on the edge of absurdity, it often lands on the right side of sleek. Most of the action takes place at night, and Los Angeles' seedier neighbourhoods have never looked this good, bathed in the lights of neon signs and car headlights.

The Driver is all the more interesting for its obvious flaws. Ryan O'Neal as the strong silent type is not as big of a disaster as he should have been. Bruce Dern's talkative, consumed detective works better for all his over-the-top colourings. And Isabelle Adjani, in her first Hollywood outing, is so dark and inexpressively pouty, probably due to a lack of comfort with the language, that she fits perfectly into the film's proudly impassive milieu.

And then Hill introduces his action set-pieces, and the film jumps into the stratosphere. There are two breathless and prolonged hyper kinetic chase showcases to open and close the film, and in the middle The Driver simply sets about carefully deconstructing a garish Mercedes as a demonstration of his abilities. Hill and cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop deliver some of the smoothest, most coherent and yet spectacular car-glorifying chases placed onto film. The sounds of roaring engines, squealing tires and police sirens emerge as easily the most dominant part of the film's soundtrack.

With an abundance of ultra-revved engines, tortured tires and over-muted characterization, The Driver is a triumph of stylistic dominance.

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