Out of all the gritniks of 70's American cinema, Walter Hill seems to be the only one to hover in that godforsaken limbo between relative obscurity, the kind of limited exposure that can be worn as a badge of honor by cult afficionados by reason of the exclusivity it provides, and relative fame, having slipped at least one movie into public consciousness with THE WARRIORS. A director that didn't quite made it into Sam Peckinpah's echelon but also enjoyed a not-quite-A-list level of commerciality that eluded people like Monte Hellman or Richard C. Sarafian. And here he is back in 1978 turning out in only his second film not just a bonafide classic of its time, of that particular time and place and bleak filmic movement heaving with disillusionment that was 70's American cinema, but also one evocative of styles and directors past and echoes farreaching perhaps even in areas that Hill touched on merely by shared influence. At the center of the action the alienated laconic Driver, no doubt a resounding echo of spaghetti western antiheroes, but also the ronin of Japanese swordplay movies of the 60's. If Hill swaps his weapon of choice from a six-shooter to a muscle car, if he removes him from the open prairies and places him smack dub in the middle of a bleak urban cityscape almost Blade Runnerish in its evocation of a faded noir past, he still channels the same aimless existential angst of the drifter that inhabits Sarafian's Vanishing Point and Melville's Le Samourai. Indeed out of all the unlikely influences one can use to describe THE DRIVER is Melville's clinical crime film. Ryan O'Neill carries himself with something of the expressionless debonair attitude of an Alain Delon. The dialogue he exchanges with an equally expressionless (and strikingly beautiful) Isabelle Adjani is clipped and stilted, the delivery as wooden as something from a Robert Bresson film. Bruce Dern as the monomaniac cop obsessed with his arrest not in the name of justice but as a personal bet he must square, provides the animated sometimes comic counterpoint against which The Driver is measured and if the action set pieces, long chase scenes through dark nameless city streets and decrepit backalleys played to no music but the screeching of tires, break the monotony of the film they do it by providing a monotony of a higher tempo. In the end THE DRIVER is all about the atmosphere and ambience it evokes. Undercutting any tendencies to make a riproaring action thriller out of a stark clinical crime film, to squeeze a romantic subplot out of characters that are not fit for romance because they're never allowed to develop as threedimensional human beings, Walter Hill wisely keeps the movie focused on its atmospheric neo noir qualities.
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