Sunday, March 27, 2016
The Driver is a suspense film so minimalist that it verges on pure abstraction. Walter Hill directed the picture in 1978 and it seems to derive, in part, from some of Jean-Pierre Melville's late crime films, laconic exercises in which almost all of the emotion is submerged beneath a surface that is nihilistically hip: it is cool to the point of iciness. (It is worth noting that Drive made in 2011 by Nicholas Winding Refn reprises many of the principal themes and stylistic characteristics of Hill's film -- including casting a vapid pretty-boy, Ryan Gosling, in the role of the titular get-away driver, a part played by the equally pretty and formidably blank Ryan O'Neal in the earlier picture. In the credits of both films, the main players are designated by their roles as opposed to by their names: both Gosling and O'Neal play "the Driver.") Hill is good with violence -- the shootings are always picturesque with unanticipated details: for instance, O'Neal's driver guns down a bad guy who is taunting him about not carrying a weapon by shooting his concealed pistol through a car window that is half-rolled down on the open door behind which the hero stands -- this creates a photogenic spray of greenish windshield glass that adorns the asphalt between the two protagonists, a feature on which the camera dwells. As one might expect, the climax consists of a protracted car chase through the night-time streets of downtown LA ending rather anticlimactically in an enormous deserted warehouse, a brightly lit maze of stacked barrels and burlap bags where the two vehicles play a sinister cat and mouse game with one another. The car chase is effectively staged and, certainly, thrilling enough in its way -- much better than the baroque action in the Fast and Furious series of films, vehicular battles that are far more spectacular but, also, completely implausible and in defiance of all the laws of physics and gravity. By contrast, Hill's big car chase generally seems realistic, although the careening vehicles shoot through a few too many red lights without calamity for credibility. Hill mixes up the shots comprising the sequence -- we get nice pictures from within the cockpits of the cars, good overhead shots, and gripping video-game-style POV sequences shot from immediately behind the vehicles. The cars glide through densely saturated pools of neon light and their chrome and windows are resplendent with menacing reflections. A problem with the sequence are the unfortunate shots of the occupants of the two cars -- during a car chase, there is nothing for the driver to do but stare ahead stoically as he tugs and twists the steering wheel. Ryan O'Neal has Isabelle Adjani trapped with him in his vehicle, a snazzy little rooster-red pickup truck -- and she is very beautiful, opaque, and, also, has nothing to do but glare at the highway ahead of her as O'Neal puts the truck through its paces. Sometimes, we see the car that O'Neal is chasing -- nothing's more cheerful or expressive in that vehicle: the two scum-bags just stare ahead fixedly at the road, everyone seeming to be weirdly hypnotized and, almost, somnambulant: it's a strange disconnect -- the faster the cars go, the more eerily impassive their drivers. There's nothing to say about the plot -- it's just a contrivance on which to string the action sequences and killings. The movie is fantastically stylized: Hill seems to be obsessed with brilliant reds and every possible variety of green. A bank robbery is notable for the fact that the bank is decorated with a brilliantly red carpet. The streets of LA glower with different types of green, some of the hues vaguely nauseating. A train station features Pullman porters in brilliant red costumes -- Hill's more interesting in the colors than the rather perfunctory and sadistic plot. Once you notice the pattern, it becomes almost absurd -- just about every shot is color-coded to key on a startlingly bright scarlet offset by nasty, indescribable neon greens.