When The Driver was originally released in 1978, it was unfortunately, to some derision, deemed as “ultraviolent trash” and said to be “advisable for film noir aficionados only.” Yet watching today, Walter Hill seems to have pumped The Driver full of his trademark style and action so much that it makes it not only a brilliant action film but an intriguing, stripped-down noir in its own right.
Hill has ripped every distracting and unnecessary layer from this film (including the running time – a lean 87 minutes) leaving only the bare bones – which makes for an intriguing experience. Set almost exclusively at night, we travel around the dark streets of the city behind the wheel of a car. The rooms and buildings are grey and bare. The excellent soundtrack is mostly made up of ambience from cars and the road (rather appropriately), with the occasional delirious horn piercing through. The engaging finale is set in a brown, still warehouse. And most importantly – the laconic, musing main character, played by Ryan O’Neal with a Gosling-like talent for making silence beautiful, has no name. In fact, no character does – Hill has reduced them to their noir objectives and roles – credited as “The Driver”, “The Detective”, “The Player” and so on. It makes for a fascinating, mood and unique take – there’s no fluff in The Driver at all. It’s been shaved off, showing you just its dark and intense heart.
Cited as a major influence on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, it would be easy to write whole books on comparisons between the two. As I’ve said, O’Neal’s similarity to Ryan Gosling is uncanny. I can’t tell if they actually look alike, or if Gosling’s performance in Drive (intentionally or not) is so similar to O’Neal’s that my brain is beginning to merge the two. Incredibly cool and soulful, O’Neal makes the long interludes between the action not only bearable – he allows Hill to explore his existential thoughts without being incredibly dull. Speaking of acting, Bruce Dern here is a perfect foil for O’Neal, as the hyped-up, obsessive and downright unnerving Detective, hellbent on catching the Driver. His reckless methods drag his character into the murky grey area of morality, right alongside O’Neal’s. In the grey world that Hill depicts, of dark, underlying thoughts and passions, you feel that’s just where they should be.
However, the standout aspect of The Driver is its action. The car chases are amazing – claustrophobic, tense, and expertly shot, complete with blinding headlights and disorienting streetlights, flickering into view. The dynamics of the chases are shaken up to keep things fresh – the Driver is initially chased and then becomes the chaser. While I’m sure much could be written about the significance of this, on a surface level they have the awesome ‘wow’ factor which every good action movie should have. They also provide an interesting way for Hill to explore the Driver’s character.
But The Driver is more of an action film than an existential crisis, and it shows. It’s simple, slow, and easyily watchable – and while these aspects do also work in its favour, they perhaps cause it to be unfavourably compared against something like Drive – which has taken a lot of features from this film and combined them to make a wonderfully violent, visually gorgeous statement. The way Hill has trimmed the fat from this film (from dialogue to lighting) is unique and makes for a very interesting and endlessly rewatchable modern noir. But while the action is fantastic and thrilling, The Driver fails to reach the bar set by its successor in terms of style and meaning.