The Driver: Director Walter Hill’s minimalist Neo-noir thriller is an exhilarating exercise in pure genre cinema

Director Walter Hill’s 1978 film, The Driver, starring Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Dern, is the ultimate exercise in pure, minimalist cinema that just keeps getting better with age.

“Boy you got it down real tight. So tight that there’s no room for anything else.”

This is what ‘The Detective’ played By Bruce Dern tells Ryan O’Neal’s ‘Driver’ in Walter Hill’s 1978  film The Driver. We could say exactly the same thing to Hill about this film as well. The Driver is that clean ,simple ,pure and minimalist. It’s cut right down to the bone, with absolutely no fat; No exposition, no character delineation, no conventional plot. not even names for the characters. It’s an exercise in pure genre cinema; Lean, muscular and linear.  Its a film in which the hero Ryan O’Neal speaks a sum total of 350 words. Bruce Dern – who could be considered the antagonist of the film, though as in any noir, all the characters in the film are morally ambiguous – gets about 80 percent of the dialogue. In some ways , its sort of a meta movie , where the cold, clinical professionalism of the director seems to have rubbed on the characters or vice a versa. The lead characters also believe in stoic professionalism; no attachments, no personal life, no romantic life. The characters are intentionally opaque and bland. They are more symbols of the society and broad archetypes of the film genre than flesh and blood characters. Apart from the driver and detective, there is The player, The connection, Glasses, Teeth etc., etc…And like the characters, the central conflict of the film is also a distilled, micro version of the larger conflict existing in the society; between the Law and the Outlaw. The perfect cop sets up a perfect ‘game’ and dares the perfect crook to play it. As he’s equally  ego driven as the cop, he accepts it, though he knows he is being set up. Because more than anything else, what both of them  wants to prove (to each other and to oneself)  is how good they really are. That way, the film can be considered a meditation on masculinity and existentialism .In the end, neither win or  loose. Their perfect ‘game’ is disturbed by more chaotic forces in the society.

Walter Hill does not waste any time in setting up the central conflict. Right from the first shot, the film plunges the viewers in to the middle of the action. The film stars off with the driver stealing a car. He is seen emerging out of the depths of the garage like some mythical being .Hill captures the image of the Driver in context of his car, often combining both images, as if the car was an extension of The driver’s physique. And as the film progresses, we realize that it  is true. The driver, like the machines he operates, is  sleek, cool and steely on the outside, but quite volatile and fiery on the inside and works according to some principles and  ‘codes’.

Post the introduction of The Driver , we next see his ‘Work’, and the first job we see him do is for a few guys who has ripped off a Casino.  But the guys who hired him are late and the cops reaches the spot faster than the driver expected. It also leads to some onlookers, especially The Player, identifying The Driver. A chase follows. Now there is nothing more cinematic than a car chase. A car chase sequence represents cinema at its purest, at its elemental, at its most kinetic. The Driver, which  is a film about a Getaway driver and an exercise in pure cinema  is  filled with some of the greatest car chases ever filmed. Hill, who assisted Peter Yates on Bullitt and had written the script of Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway is in top form here; staging the chase sequences from inside and outside the car and cutting them together seamlessly.

In the midst of the Getaway chase, we are introduced to The Detective and his deputy; he is told that this is the same guy who pulled a similar stunt 6 weeks ago and whom the Detective has been doggedly following. The chase ends with The Driver playing a game of ‘who blinks first’ with the cops as he drives the car straight into the pursuing  police cars. The cops loose their nerve and swerves, resulting in their cars crashing   and the driver getting away unharmed. At the end of it we see the the Driver destroying the Car in a junkyard ,The Driver is paid by the robbers, but he makes it clear that he won’t work with them again. They were late and they use guns, Both of which The Driver disapproves. The Detective sets up an identification parade for the witnesses, in which the Driver is present. But The Player refuses to identify him. Post the parade, the detective tries to provoke the driver into a fight, he almost bites, but then restrains himself. Detective makes an open challenge to the Driver – whom he calls Cowboy- “That he’s gonna catch the cowboy who’s never been caught”.

So within the first fifteen minutes itself , the whole set up of the film – both the plot and character – is fully established by the director. We get to know the 3 main characters; we get the history of the driver as well as the fact that detective has been chasing the driver for some time and is quite obsessed with the pursuit. Though the driver works primarily for the money, he operates within his own rules. On the other hand, the detective represents the ‘Raw’ man; who is vulnerable, human and given to idiosyncrasies. he’s not polished and well oiled as the Driver. But he too is very good at his job and admires someone who is good at their job. So catching and putting his away becomes a matter of pride for him. To catch the Driver, The Detective sets up a ‘hit’ job of his own – an illegal sting – where he gets a few guys to do a job and get the driver to drive them away. The Detective can thus catch the Driver in the ‘act’ and put him away forever. When the guys – Glasses and Teeth – whom the detective hired to set up the job fails to convince the Driver to be the  getaway guy, the detective himself intervenes and challenges the Driver to play his game and prove himself. Since the Driver is as egotistical as the Detective, he agrees to take up the challenge.

But the detective’s perfect  plans are spoiled by Glasses and Teeth-  guys who have no moral code and operates chaotically and violently within the society. They do not keep their end of the bargain and double crosses both the detective and the driver. While they successfully evade the Detective, they are not so lucky with the Driver, as he’s always prepared for any eventuality. The Driver kills Glasses, who had treacherously tried to shoot him down; Driver seems to magically produce a gun from under his vest, his hands hidden by the car door-  emphasizing the part man part machine conception of the character-  and shoots down a surprised Glasses, who was not expecting the Driver to shoot him, as he never carries around a gun.  After killing Glasses, The Driver picks up the ‘dirty’ money stolen from the bank and drives away. This leaves the volatile ‘Teeth’ – who was left out of the bank job at Driver’s insistence- screaming for revenge for the death of his partner. A series of chaotic events follows, as the plan devised by The Detective gets completely out of hand; to the point that The Detective himself is excluded from the very ‘game’ he set up and the action is concentrated completely between the outlaws. First, ‘The Connection’ is killed by Teeth. Meanwhile, The Driver,  who has taken up temporary lodgings in a cheap motel, sets up a scheme to ‘clean’ the dirty money through ‘The Player’ involving an ‘Exchange Man’. The deal goes through successfully, but The Detective manages to discover the plot after he successfully tracks down and kills the ‘Exchange Man’ – in a lengthy scene set on a train that’s very similar to the train sequence in Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Getaway’, written by Walter Hill. The final part of the ‘Game’ is about who gets the clean money that was exchanged in return for the dirty money that resulted from the ‘sting’ job. The climactic duel (chase) takes place between The Driver and Teeth – who stole the keys to the locker where the clean money is kept. In the end, the Driver pulls off the same trick – ‘Who Blinks first’ – that he did with the cops in the first chase, with Teeth and his Driver, thus overturning and destroying their car . Driver shoots and kills Teeth who refuse to give up. Teeth’s driver  hands over the bag with the key to the locker and The Driver tells him to ‘go home’ (perhaps as a note to himself). The final scene has The Driver himself (in an act of supreme egotism and arrogance) walking into the station to pick up the ‘clean’ money from the locker. The detective and his squad reaches the place in time, but they cannot arrest The Driver, as the bag that was to contain the clean money is found to be empty. The Exchange Man has cheated them, thereby saving The Driver in the end, and leaving the Detective (literally) holding the bag. Though the detective can create a case against the driver based on some of the evidence, he isn’t going to do it; he wanted an open and shut case; that was the whole purpose of the game. The film ends with everybody walking away into darkness.

As a Neo-noir, that film takes its inspiration from Jean-Pierre Melville’s French classic  Le Samourai, which was again  a superb exercise in Minimalism about a detective pursuing a hired killer. The killer is protected by a mysterious women; there it was a piano player, here it’s ‘The Player’ (played by Isabella Adjani) .’The Player’ is introduced in a scene involving a game of cards, which is again a nod to Le Samourai; that film had Alain Delon’s killer going to a card game after the kill. We also get an identification parade sequence in both films, where the ‘Women’ refuse to identify ‘The Driver\Killer’ as the culprit of the crime, even though she saw him committing it. But The Driver is a more optimistic film than Le Samourai, as the protagonist survives at the end; maybe because The Driver is the only one in the film who is acting with any sense of control and morality. The Detective breaks his code when he sets up an illegal sting operation in collusion with the immoral, chaotic  elements of the society. It’s interesting to note that the activities of these elements, though intended to benefit the Law, ultimately benefits the outlaw. Glasses try to deal with The driver on his own  and The Exchange Man rips off The Driver , Both actions that benefit the driver in the end and screws The Detective.

And as in any Noir , the landscape in which the film is set gives an indication to the mind space of the character(s). In this film, The Driver’s surroundings mainly consist of cheap hotel rooms with minimum furniture. It is in stark contrast to the sleek vehicles that he drives. Also, the dark, deserted L.A., with its abandoned factories and warehouses portrayed in this film is very different from what we see in other films. Not until the epic urban crime dramas of Michael Mann do we see them again . The basic structure of The Driver is very similar to Michael Mann’s 1995 magnum opus “Heat”, where an obsessed detective wants to bring down a ‘perfect’ thief, though that was a more sprawling film. Actually, Mann wanted Walter Hill to direct Heat , and you can understand why. but he then changed his mind and directed the film himself.

The Driver was Hill’s sophomore directorial venture and the follow up to the equally minimalist and spare, Hard Times, in 1975. He would follow this up with The Warriors, Southern Comfort, The Long riders and 48 Hrs in quick succession; all of them hard hitting, masculine, pure cinematic exercises. His career would take a hit in the late 80’s and 90’s. But The Driver, which i consider his greatest film, still stands up and keeps getting better and better with time, especially since such minimalist purism is so hard to come by these days of endless sequels and franchise pictures that dumb down their ideas to the audience. Hill’s commitment to minimalism in this film is obsessive to the point that he doesn’t care about logic. The film follows its own logic based on the aesthetic that he has set for it; Which explains the two rather magical jump-cuts in the film; First, when a gun magically appears in The Driver’s hand when he shoots down ‘Glasses’; and second at the end of the film, where the cops are all suddenly standing there in the train station when The Driver comes to get the money. The Driver doesn’t hear them come in. He opens the locker, takes the bag out, turns around and Boom!, The Detective with the entire squad is standing in front of him That’s a bit of magical realism that would not have been acceptable in any other film, but feels plausible and totally acceptable in this film; a film that strives for pure minimalism in every frame, every character, every situation it presents, and successfully achieves that magic of cinematic purity in style.

4 thoughts on “The Driver: Director Walter Hill’s minimalist Neo-noir thriller is an exhilarating exercise in pure genre cinema

  1. The driver was an ok movie.
    Just a suggestion, I’d avoid headings that are superlatives, like ‘the greatest ever, the best, and a masterpiece’.
    Again, it was an ok movie, this was no masterpiece, in any sense of the word

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    1. I said Minimalist Neo noir masterpiece. I am saying it’s a masterpiece of a certain kind and I believe in it, which is why I bothered to write about it. You are free to disagree with it. Anyway thanks for your response

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  2. O’Neal was awful. Can we just all admit that, even if we like this try for minimalist transcendence? He looks like he strolled in from People Magazine. The best scenes are without him. When he speaks, we are in the dangerous terrain of cinematic homage cum parody.

    The chases were excellent. I especially liked the sequence when he demonstrates his prowess by wrecking the merc, but it was awfully derivative of Point Blank. It’s practically ruined by his moral outrage when he declines the offer he’s been given.

    Dern was good too, fun to watch. Too bad his co-star couldn’t match him.

    Was Adjani alive when she made this? Just askin’ 🤗

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