Walter Hill’s The Driver is all about work done well

Walter Hill’s The Driver is all about work done well

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Fast & Furious 6 inspires us to look back on other vehicular action movies.

The Driver (1978)
Stripped to its barest neo-noir essentials, The Driver is all fatalistic cool, stoic professionalism, and tire-screeching auto mayhem—a genre vehicle that, like its eponymous Driver (Ryan O’Neal), is defined by its expertly modulated action. Walter Hill’s 1978 film is a work of quiet attitude and breakneck road rage, paying homage to Robert Bresson and Jean-Pierre Melville (in particular, Le Samouraï). Its portrait of O’Neal’s expressionless getaway wheelman reveals a sandy-haired hunk in a blazer and open-collared blue shirt whose life is driven by an unwavering insistence on performing his job on his own terms. Hill introduces Driver emerging from the depths of a parking garage before stealing a Ford and blazing off to a heist, where he’s spotted by gambling beauty The Player (Isabelle Adjani) and is forced to evade cops in a chase that Hill shoots with a blistering mixture of front- and rear-POV shots, squealing rubber on asphalt, and close-ups of O’Neal’s blank countenance.

Amid the factories and warehouses of a grungy, nocturnal L.A., Driver attempts to stick to his moral code (no guns, no attachments) even as he’s pursued by Bruce Dern’s cocky Detective, who treats his cops-and-robbers vocation as a game and, like his criminal counterpart, respects “a man that’s good at what he does.” In a scene of visceral violence, Driver shows off his skills to prospective clients by dismantling a car, piece by piece, by crashing it into the walls and columns of an underground parking garage. Through this vehicular destruction, O’Neal expresses the fury and brutality otherwise suppressed beneath his composed visage.

Characters without names, deeds executed without words—Hill reduces everything to its archetypal basics in order to celebrate the nobility and exhilaration of work executed with precision. In the process, he delivers a film that—culminating with a cat-and-mouse duel of mounting suspense—combines existential anxiety and kinetic thrills in a meticulous manner that would make its protagonist proud.

Availability: DVD available for purchase and rental via the usual outlets.