Voluntary isolation. It’s not something that many people understand. Say to a colleague that you’re going to the cinema on your own and they look at you as if you’ve mentioned casually that you enjoy killing infants. Some people are happy in their own company, and find the simplicity of their existence easier than the chaos of other people. Other people will take from you, they’ll compromise you.
The Driver is this isolation challenged and intruded upon. Driving is a solitary occupation – you alone are in control of the vehicle – yet you operate in acknowledgement of all the other drivers on the road. When The Driver’s asceticism is interrupted by a determined, slightly unhinged (aren’t they all?) police officer, it’s quickly abandoned, and the life of focus becomes a life of competition.
The Driver and The Detective are designed to be the same. Played by two actors (Bruce Dern & Ryan O’Neal) who are both unimaginable in anything outside of the 1970’s, they flirt with each other intensely. The film is some elaborate dick measuring competition, only intensified by its focus on automobiles (what is that people say about the size of your car…?). Isabelle Adjani’s character is called The Player, but she barely needs to play at all, immune as these two men are to her not inconsiderable charm.
There is not a single film in the world that could not be improved with a car chase. It’s one of the purest forms of cinematic expression – the photography of motion. Walter Hill films these chases with such precision, keeping the camera low to the road, and cutting to close-ups of The Driver at the wheel – understanding that on the screen, the jerk of a car steering wheel is as powerful as a handbrake turn.
(Drive is this film with no car chases and made by someone who played an awful lot of GTA: Vice City. Make of that what you will.)
The asceticism of the main character extends to the score. There is little music within the film, Hill instead using the wail of sirens and screech of brakes to provide sonic disruption. They are aggressive sounds. The primal fears of the 20th Century. Those sounds only mean disaster, and the constant intrusion of them within this film only unsettle you as a viewer.
I don’t know how many great films someone has to make before they are great. Walter Hill made six or seven and yet no one ever talks about him. Erased as participant in the New Wave, ignored as a pioneer of some of the dominant styles of movie making in the Eighties (48 Hrs. and The Warriors tell you all you need to know about mainstream American Cinema in that decade – they are the mutual blueprint), and removed from the canon of great directors of Westerns. But this is what happens when you focus too intensely. You become easy to ignore.