The Driver (1978) – A Review
Ryan O’Neal is the best getaway driver in the city. He’s a man of few words and doesn’t have much of a life other than getting behind the wheel and tearing down the Los Angeles streets at night avoiding police. Oh he does enjoy listening to country music, but other than that everything he cares about is sitting in a drivers seat.
Because of his stellar reputation he’s high in demand for jobs and commands a high price. For all his notoriety however he has never been caught by the police. This is what drives ‘The Detective’ (Bruce Dern) to be the guy to take the ‘Cowboy’ down. He’s determined to be the one to finally bring the Driver in and put an end to his criminal career.
Writer/director Walter Hill crafts a minimalist action film yarn inhabited by archetypal characters. No one in the movie even has any name. It’s an extremely straight-forward cat and mouse game of the Driver and the Detective trying to outwit one another. The Detective wants to arrest him and the Driver doesn’t want to let him. Simple stuff. It’s not the most complicated story ever, but it’s the atmosphere and the neo-noir quality that makes its so unique and worth watching. Plus, it has some terrific car chases!
The majority of the action takes place at night with unfriendly characters tough talking each other and always making clear their motivations and what they’re after. ‘The Driver’ however is a man of few words, he rarely speaks and let’s his driving and stares take care of business.
No exaggeration, I think O’Neal might have had like three pages of dialogue he says throughout the entire movie – if that. It’s not really the type of role one would equate with O’Neal, but he does a good job of playing the Driver’s unshakable, stoic demeanor in the most suspenseful situations.
Dern gets most of the dialogue as he sets a trap to catch the driver. He does a lot of explaining to his partner Red Plainsclothes (Matt Clark) and assuring him this plan will work. Isabelle Adjani drops in as The Player, a detached icy female that gets pulled in between the dueling men.
Of course as with most crime dramas, there’s the bag of cash that everyone is after, the drop-off, the betrayal, all that criminal story stuff. When that begins the story plays out in a rather clichéd fashion. It’s not original and we’ve seen that stuff before, but it’s the presentation of it that makes it feel fresher and more exciting than you’d expect.
Then we have the car chases and we get some real nail biters. They’re raw, rough and exciting as hell. They’re very simply handled and don’t get fancy with hyper editing or music drowning out the sounds of engines rumbling and wheels screeching.
There’s an all-out determination the Driver has when he gets behind the wheel and you can feel that pulsating all the way through the final car chase. Some have said the chases here are some of the best ever done. I’ll leave that for you to decide, but they are certainly really great.
The Driver is a relatively short film. It clocks in at about an hour and half. It may sound like a typical crime drama and granted it might not be for everyone, but while watching it I was never bored and was kept on the edge of my seat the entire time.
I also couldn’t help but think of 2011’s Drive while watching this and the similarities between the two films. I don’t know if The Driver was an influence on it or not, but I could envision O’Neal’s ‘Driver’ being the distant father of Ryan Gossling’s Driver. Or at least being a distant relative.