Driver Walter Hill (USA; 1978) Ryan O’Neil, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 8th Feb 2019; ticket; £6.00
the wonder of emptiness
The last few years has seen the release of a large number of films designed as emotional hooks to bait the viewer. It’s the zeitgeist. Films whose objective is primarily manipulation of emotions and empathic response. Characters are kitted out with heart wrenching back stories, secret sorrows, and ennobled by their relations with their family, in the main their children for whom they are prepared to fight and to make any necessary sacrifices.
Hill’s ‘Driver’ is a product of another era: a seventies Hollywood before it had been infected by virus of scripts inbuilt schmaltz, when film or at least Hollywood film kept on track by means of a straight narrative line, developing character through the medium of the enfolding of situation, the transforming of situation and energised shifts in situation. Bob Rafelson in a couple of films through situation investigated the psycho-political–dynamics endemic in intrapersonal relations, as did Barbara Loden and even Dennis Hopper. In this era, many directors and script writers of genre movies often had recourse to the game model to give structure to their films. Given the ‘game’ there was little need of extraneous sub-plots, back stories or locating the protagonists in a world of personal familial relations. The dynamics of the game once out of the blocks stayed in play until some form of end resolution was achieved, usually the creation of a new situation.
The game model implies a world bounded in space and time which is sustained and closed off by its own rules; a world where in a loose sense there are players agents and pawns and where the outcome involves one of the players coming out or at least seeming to come out on top. Winning of course might not be without cost. As in chess within the parameters of the game there is the possibility of an endless richness and variation in play. A possibility, that is not always realised because as in chess, there is a tendency for games to resemble each other. People have a fondness for the same moves.
Of course even game grounded structure still permitted the introduction of other desires on the part of protagonists. Desires, mostly but not necessarily romantic, that filled out the characters, but never removed them from the game. Desires that created the scripted tensions that intensified the demands made on the individuals playing the game, but could never be resolved outside the logic of the game.
Hill’s ‘Driver’ stands out because he has stripped out of the scenario anything that is extraneous to the game. Everything that doesn’t relate to theme or action is pared away so that the film becomes clear in its simplicity. It is game ‘pure’ played by two parties: Ryan O’Neil and Bruce Dern. The form is so abstracted that none of the players or pawns are given personal name identities. They are presented as pure types: the driver (AKA he cowboy) the detective, the player. There are no personal relationships only agonistic ones: the contest between the driver and the detective, which is presented as zero sum game. Stripping out other ‘desires’ gives the film a sparse mythical resonance. The game between the men has the dimension of the primal agonistic competition between the old ruler and this heir apparent who must slay the incumbent before taking his place. And relieved of any scripted romantic obligation, Isabelle Adjani’s dark presence as ‘the player’ suggests a Sybil type feminine force, a shadowy agent of fate prescient of the outcome of the game.
No sex, no family, no romance. Driver is like a emptied of everything bar the forces set in play by the game. All the better for it as it allows Hill to concentrate his direction not on character development but on the action and dynamics of the play. Hill’s direction and script, in particular with Adjani on the pay roll, owes something to French Nouvelle Vague, being crisp and to the point. There is nothing superfluous, the dialogue develops the action, the camera is points directly to what is pertinent.
Such emptiness allows the viewer to take possession of the film and its relations. There is no heavily scored soundtrack designed to make the viewer submit to the script’s emotional tyranny. At the end, after the contemporary spectacle of titles that last twenty seconds you have seen a film that is not selling you anything you didn’t want to buy, because you have been responsible for the content, Hill has simply given you a form.