The Driver (1978)

Written by Mike Lyon on February 27th, 2008

It’s time to take a look at an early work by another writer-turned-director, Walter Hill. Hill is an icon, writing or co-writing the first three Alien movies and Peckinpah’s excellent heist pic The Getaway, in addition to helming perennial underground favorite The Warriors.

The Driver has developed quite the cult following amongst car-chase aficionados, and it’s easy to see why. There are three first-class chase sequences spaced evenly throughout the picture, and each one has its own stunt set-piece and funky internal logic. The best of the three is definitely the staged chase in which Ryan O’Neal, as the titular unnamed protagonist, shows his skills to a trio of potential clients by systematically destroying their car during a parking-garage psych-out. The chases are very composed and serene by today’s standards: the first is completely silent except for the persistent wailing of police sirens – wordless, no soundtrack – many cuts to O’Neal’s stoic face set in concentration but no glimpses of the pursuing officers, until it starts to seem like he’s being chased through Manhattan by a pack of eerie howling wild animals.

Outside the car, O’Neal does his best Steve McQueen impression and keeps his mouth shut, fitting right in with the film’s stark aesthetic. Hill’s vaguely noirish structural riffing is great fun an even half of the movie, and a little hard to swallow the rest of the time. The dialogue is as hard-boiled as it comes, and not always for the better – some lines clearly read better on paper. Bruce Dern hams it up as the detective bent on bringing O’Neal to justice, but his performance clashes with the overall tone, and I found myself impatient for the police-related interludes to end. The film locks into a tight groove in the last 30 minutes, but by that time the meandering stylistic inconsistencies almost kept me from jumping back in for the ride.

The Driver is an interesting, even charismatic little picture that always keeps a close orbit to its all-important chases. But it’s clear that at this point in Hill’s career he still had one foot in his screenwriting shoes and one in his directing shoes, trying to figure out how to walk a straight line without hopping on one leg.

[rating: 7]

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