1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

The Driver (1978)

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Director/Screenwriter: Walter Hill

By Roderick Heath

Night and the city. Sulphurous hues of street lamps and luminous neon hieroglyphs. Clammy sex in fetid hotel suites. Feverish gambling in the small back rooms. Bloody battles in grimy alleys and warehouses. Walter Hill’s filmography most readily calls to mind such textures, although he just as often ventured out into the dusty west or into the iron and concrete jungles of prisons. Hill seemed set for a major film career as he rose up the ranks as a screenwriter, penning films like The Getaway (1972) and The Mackintosh Man (1973) for classical hard-asses Sam Peckinpah and John Huston. Hill debuted as a director with Hard Times (1975), and scored big hits with The Warriors (1979) and 48 Hours (1982), as well as producing and penning instalments of the Alien series. Hill resembled some other filmmakers who emerged around the same time, including Michael Mann, John Carpenter, and John Milius, in his range of inspirations and stylistic reflexes, his love for old-school storytelling virtues and a love of tough guy mystique contradicted by an urge to search for instability behind the façade, mediated by an attempt to mate such reflexes with a sense of updated immediacy and realism, and a near-anthropological interest in people on the fringes of society. Hill loves tales of people trying to survive hostile landscapes be they rural or urban, exploring that theme overtly in The Warriors, Southern Comfort (1981), and Trespass (1992), often limiting the scope of his action to a brief and concentrated timespan redolent of classical drama: even Aliens (1986), although realised by James Cameron, took an essential Hill template for its story.

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The Warriors, almost certainly Hill’s best-known and most-loved film, manages to seem at once palpable and stylised, mating myth-history and comic book aesthetics with a pungent sense of place and physical immediacy in sustaining its own little cordoned world. Hill’s love of the textures of ‘50s noir and rock’n’roll flicks eventually drove him to make Streets of Fire (1984), a film conjured almost entirely in an argot of retro tropes. Despite what seemed to be Hill’s commercially amenable fascination with pulp fiction mores, he proved at odds with the increasingly fantastical tone of the evolving action blockbuster, rendering his box office touch scattershot. Like some of his fellows, Hill stumbled in the late 1980s. He made ill-received attempts to expand out of his genre comfort zone with the comedy Brewster’s Millions (1985) and the rock musical Crossroads (1986). Hill’s turn towards revisionist Westerns in the mid-1990s, with Geronimo: An American Legend (1994) and Wild Bill (1995), was also met with general apathy, but they were interesting and textured works that informed Hill’s later role in creating the cult TV show Deadwood. His attempt to reunite Yojimbo (1961) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with their American roots as Last Man Standing (1996) was unfortunately a distressingly dreary entry, and his first two films of the new millennium, Supernova (2000) and Undisputed (2002), were dumped in release. But Hill’s sporadic late-career efforts Bullet to the Head (2012) and The Assignment (2017) have their virtues as self-consciously trashy sketches of auteurist humour.

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Hill’s The Driver, his second film, sits at the intersection of filmic avenues, a gritty, terse, nasty chimera, part movie-brat assimilation of old film noir and westerns, part quintessential study in 1970s streetwise verisimilitude. In many ways it’s Hill’s most restrained and minimalist film, like its hero operating on a high-band wavelength often bordering on the subliminal, and it was met by general critical and audience bemusement upon release. But it’s become enshrined as an inescapable influence on subsequent neo-noir cinema. The Driver made an immediate and unmistakeable impact on Mann’s style as purveyed in his debut Thief (1981), and echoes in labours by filmmakers occupying the crossroads of independent and genre cinema, including Jim Jarmusch, Jeremy Saulnier, and Quentin Tarantino’s LA crime films, particularly Jackie Brown (1997). It’s received overt homages in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017), and some of its visual imprimatur can also be detected in films as disparate as Repo Man and The Terminator (both 1984). The Driver’s failure to connect in its day must have felt especially bitter and ironic given it seems to designed to at once ride the wave of popularity for action films built around car chases, borne out of the popularity of Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), and to provide a sharply different approach to and anatomisation of the mystique of this certain kind of movie.

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Anticipating The Warriors in depicting the flotsam of a nocturnal existence engaged in primal battles the sunlit world never knows, The Driver also retained Hard Times’ portrayal of exile-in-society antiheroes, whilst moving beyond the immediate sway of Peckinpah and Huston. The Driver saw Hill emulating Jean-Pierre Melville and his particularly Gallic brand of crime movie with its glaze of existential cool and alienation chic as exemplified by Le Samouraï (1967), and his inclusion of French actress Isabelle Adjani tipped a hat to the influence. It made sense then that just about the only film market The Driver initially scored a hit in was France. Hill’s efforts in marrying high-powered chase action with a spare, existential, rather European vibe had also been strongly anticipated by Richard Fleischer’s The Last Run (1971), but Hill brought the style back home and rooted it firmly in a bracingly intense and intimate feel for the seamy backwaters of Los Angeles and the traditions of American underworld portraiture. Often it feels as much informed by the likes of Nelson Algren and Edward Hopper as classic noir. The first glimpse of the film’s antihero, known only as The Driver (Ryan O’Neal), comes with a mythopoeic note, as we see him rising out of the underworld – riding an escalator up into a car park where he selects a car to break into with a specially-made key, and drives out into the Los Angeles night.

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Hill cuts to the interior of a casino, a space of phony-plush cool where Adjani’s character, known as The Player, plays as the dealer in a card game with an expression of intense ennui, waiting out the night’s games with fellow gamblers seeking the elusive charge of fortune but currently only receiving static. These two disparate citizens of the nocturnal world soon prove to be linked, as a pair of masked hoodlums (Nick Dimitri and Bob Minor) burst into the casino, assault a security guard, and make off with the bank. The Player, leaving the casino, hovers near the rear entrance and seems to fix on The Driver as he sits parked and waiting, having already smashed through a wooden barrier to access the rear of the building. The robbers dash out and climb aboard with The Driver, who begins a dash through the LA downtown, streets close to deserted in the wee small hours save cop cars that come blazing out of the shadows and give chase. The Driver’s innate genius is proven as he eludes, outruns, and wrecks his pursuers, as well as his bullish refusal to be cornered or intimidated, as he charges headlong at a pair of oncoming cruisers, defying the bullets that glance off the windscreen, and forces them to swerve and crash, much to the chagrin of his charges. After being sure of their escape, The Driver dumps the stolen car in a car graveyard, and curtly informs the thieves, after they’ve given him his share of the loot, that they won’t be working together again: “You were late.”

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The Driver’s latest escapade stirs the city’s most fearsome hunting dog out of his kennel: The Detective (Bruce Dern) is first glimpsed playing pool by himself in a tavern, itching for an opponent worth of his mettle. The Detective scarcely conceals his delight when he finds The Driver has left behind his fashioned key as a taunting calling card: “Cowboy,” one his partners notes, to The Detective’s reply, “No shit.” The Detective knows well who The Driver is and his desire to nab him ratchets up to an obsessive register: “I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught.” The Detective has The Driver brought in and shown off to witnesses from the casino: most state they didn’t get a good look at him, except for The Player, who states categorically that he isn’t the man. The Player, it soon turns out, was specifically courted to play the misdirecting witness by The Connection (Ronee Blakely), The Driver’s agent who finds him jobs, and The Driver breaks with his usual hygienic protocols to pay The Player off personally, perhaps because he’s attracted to her but also perhaps sensing she’s to play some unknown role in his looming battle with The Detective.

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This link seems to be confirmed by the Fates as The Detective comes to call on The Player in her upscale apartment whilst The Driver is speaking with her. The Detective leans on The Player, knowing full well what her function in the game is, and rattling her cage when she defies him with all her languid cool: “Of course there was that one little scrape. That kind of nasty one. The one that got swept under the rug?” True to the roguish proclivities of the 1970s zeitgeist (and now?) as well as to Hill’s efforts to blend schools old and revisionist, Hill offers The Driver as an admirable figure despite his criminal profession, a man who operates definitively according to a silently enforced code of behaviour both in himself and expected of others, whilst The Detective is a ripe bastard in representing law and order. O’Neal’s inhabiting of a stern, taciturn, rigorously professional persona is pitted against Dern’s depiction of a man who likes talking, if to specific effect. The Detective’s pleasure in goading and provoking and showing off his mastery manifests with sadistic concision as he tries to fracture The Driver’s hard shell by tossing hot coffee on his hands whilst they converse, and then daring his foe to punch him at the cost of two years in prison. The Driver’s bone-deep self-control asserts itself and he pulls back from landing the blow.

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The Detective has two partners in his roving crime squad, the ‘Red Plainclothesman’ (Matt Clark) and the ‘Gold Plainclothesman’ (Felice Orlandi). The former is a relative newcomer to the team who feels uneasy when confronted by The Detective’s methods and attitude, making plays at challenging The Detective’s confidence and assurance as it becomes clear the senior cop will contemplate breaking rules and laws to achieve his objective as well as abusing and humiliating people. The Detective responds to Red’s weak resistance with a mix of disdainful amusement and friendly-aggressive mentorship: “You’re a loser. But I think you’d like to be a winner.” The Detective eventually decides the best and most efficient way to catch The Driver red-handed is to set up a bank robbery himself. He fixes on a pair of sleazy stick-up men, ‘Glasses’ (Joseph Walsh) and ‘Teeth’ (Rudy Ramos), whose most recent job was robbing a pharmacy, and are in need of a new getaway driver because their current one, Fingers (Will Walker) has become erratic, despite having once been good enough to have been in on another job with The Driver as his back-up. The glimpse Hill offers of Glasses, Teeth, and Fingers in action together summarises their essential natures and potential dangers in deft strokes: Glasses loses him temper for little good reason, Teeth shoots out the windows of the pharmacy to make a big noise and intimidate for equally little reason, and the rattled Fingers speeds away in crazed style, almost careening into an oncoming truck and sideswiping a parked car.

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The Driver neither entirely adheres to old-school generic niceties nor strains to deflower them in the manner of something like Chinatown (1974). The characters operate according to their natures and functions, signalled by their reduction to systemised generic titles rather than names and the disinterest in defining them according to their biographies. But are ultimately all forced to confront the hollowness of their actions. Not for the last time in his oeuvre, Hill’s characters here resemble honed metaphors for life as an on-the-make Hollywood creative. Plotting colossal projects and living transfiguring dreams whilst subsisting in ratty apartments, trying to retain maverick ethics whilst surrounded by sharks and lowlifes, to smuggle through personal statements under the nose of authority. Hill’s most recent film The Assignment tweaked the figuration to offer the mad scientist villain as the easily bored and maliciously talented artist figure, but here The Driver’s ethic as a practitioner of a rarefied art accords perfectly with Hill’s method in his, trying to hone every shot, word, and gesture down to a pure and essential form. Most of the characters and their interactions embody Hill’s screenwriting precepts. Relevant information, no chit-chat; gestures and skills mean more than words. The Detective’s privilege is indicated as the relative spendthrift with talk, although his use of them likewise has a sense of effect.

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A year before Werner Herzog cast her in his remake of Nosferatu, Adjani seems present in a different kind of vampiric drama and similarly cast for the almost hallucinatory quality of her beauty rather than the volatility that had made her an instant star in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975). The Player, like The Driver, is someone entirely immersed in a hardboiled world although she occupies a higher end of the scale for the time being, her apartment a sleek and pricey abode that seems to hover high above the LA night, albeit one just as sparsely furnished and almost shell-like as any of the dives The Driver inhabits, signalling she’s another one ready to flee at a second’s notice. The first glimpse of The Player, dealing in a poker game in the casino, registers her as both an uncommon presence and one utterly bored, compelling the eye and deflecting it at once. The Player explains her motives for getting mixed up with his business to The Driver when he visits her with casual, almost fatalistic concision, stating that the apartment is paid for by some occasional high-roller lover but “lately the cheques haven’t been so regular.” Her and The Driver’s relationship is transactional in stated terms, as The Detective’s threats oblige The Player to push The Driver in turn to make sure he can make it worth her while to maintain his alibi.

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But some arc of attraction seems to also spark between the pair, sufficient to draw The Driver to her and vice versa in risky ventures, each cognisant of the other as both a danger and also a bird of the same feather, intense and disinclined to large gestures, speaking language through their piercing gazes instead. “Cowboy music,” The Player notes as she visits The Driver’s seamy flat: “Always tells a story. Drunks, whores, broken hearts.” Hill’s thumbnail for the appeal of genre storytelling, a certain brand thereof at least, one preoccupied by the losers and outsiders amidst American life. The Driver, despite being in a lucrative line of work who’s been working heavily, subsists in the crummy grandeur of cheap hotel rooms with inexpressibly hideous peeling teal paintwork. It’s a lifestyle The Detective notes with a certain level of approval as a sign of The Driver’s dedication and intelligence, living in a manner that offers no hint of secret wealth or indeed any signs of actual life: “Boy, you’ve got it down real tight. So tight there’s no room for anything else.” Despite his seemingly unswerving realism and professionalism The Driver nonetheless eventually reveals motives fuelled by something more elusive, including a belief in a run of luck – “I’m riding a wave” – that must be followed to its end as if he too is a gambler, one playing his game with the universe.

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The criminals The Detective selects to play out the necessary roles in his master plan immediately irritate The Driver when they try to commission him, seeing in them the precise qualities The Driver disdains. “How do we know you’re that good?” Teeth demands when The Driver names his high price when he meets with them in a car park. The Driver immediately and vengefully demonstrates to them his quality by taking over the criminals’ Mercedes and driving it pell-mell around the car park, slamming it against walls and columns, terrifying his passengers and leaving the car a battered wreck, before turning down their offer. The Driver’s antagonism with Teeth ratchets still higher when the criminal turns up on the landing outside his apartment, brandishing a massive revolver to bully him into signing on. The Driver nonetheless remains profoundly unimpressed, at first challenging Teeth to pull the trigger and then, after meeting his gaze for many moments in a staring contest, socking him in the jaw and throwing him down the stairs. “I just wanted to talk,” Teeth groans to The Driver’s cold reply, “You did.” Glasses goes to meet with The Detective to confess failure in obtaining The Driver’s services, whereupon The Detective calmly sets about arranging it himself by visiting The Driver in his apartment and challenging him to engage in the contest, even returning to him his lock pick.

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This key confrontation sees the two characters conversing in hard glares, the stakes and connections unspoken and yet stated through semaphore of body language and attitude, with The Driver signalling his acceptance of the game by taking the key. O’Neal had emerged as a major star with the success of Love Story (1970) and he followed it up with hits like What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), and stretched himself to great effect with Barry Lyndon (1975). O’Neal had a peculiar screen persona, appearing very much the blandly handsome everyman imbued with a limpidly romantic cast, contradicted by eyes that harboured a hue of wounded animal ruefulness and shrewdness, blended qualities that informed his best roles and performances. Hill had written one of O’Neal’s earlier vehicles, The Thief Who Came To Dinner (1973), and The Driver plays in a fashion as a more self-serious iteration of that film, and suggests Hill saw unrealised dimensions in the actor. Although he signalled a move in that direction with A Bridge Too Far (1977), O’Neal wasn’t associated with tough guy parts, and after The Driver’s failure no-one would again. Which was a real pity, as O’Neal’s career was left with no place to go, and yet he inhabits the part of The Driver perfectly, with his squared-off poise and air of physical competence held on a tight leash of hard-learnt restraint, and when The Driver resorts to direct acts of violence it’s both blindsiding and convincing.

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The air of caginess, of some private reserve O’Neal was keeping locked away from the world, became a potent reservoir when it came to projecting The Driver’s borderline maniacal commitment to a private ethic and project of asocial resistance. The Driver seems less motivated to engage in criminal activity for money but to thumb his nose at people who live by less concerted ways, an aspect of his character The Detective readily grasps because it’s an attitude he shares, if whilst expressing and actualising in quite different ways. Dern, by contrast, had almost become synonymous with a certain kind of role, callow creeps and unstable outcasts, like his Vietnam veteran-turned-terrorist in Black Sunday (1977) and his infamous part as a psycho who kills John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972). Hill readily tapped Dern’s ability to play galvanising assholes but also showed cheekiness in making him the representative of authority. The Detective compares his own approach to his job as one rooted in the same presumptions as newspaper sports results – points on the boards neatly demarcating all players as winners and losers, the nominal task of upholding a public responsibility and enforcing community laws subordinated to the needs of ego and simple equations of power.

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The Detective sees himself as the winner in a job for a society that values only winners, a proto-Trump figure in extolling an exclusively Darwinian sense of the world where the rules are only incumbent upon those not naturally chosen for success, for status, for the right to self-identify with the spine of the establishment. On the other hand The Driver is contrasted by Glasses and Teeth as well as the two stick-up men he taxis at the outset, bandits who almost by definition will possess or foster traits that work against The Driver’s professional sensibility as well as his distrust of violence as people quick to temper and irresponsible. Glasses seems like a reasonable and steady captain for gangland activities in comparison to Teeth, who The Driver immediately pins as a potential hazard with his attitude and delight in violence and provocation, and soon gets all the evidence he needs to back up the assessment. Glasses eventually proves to have his own explosive and duplicitous streak. The Driver’s habit of talking a hard line with flaky colleagues despite not carrying a gun is a test he liberally applies, quickly revealing hotheads and reactive fools, a point of character that feels reminiscent of some Western heroes like Barry Sullivan’s character in Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957), presenting the truest tough guy as one who can maintain a pacifist demeanour but doesn’t flinch from speaking cold truth and laying down the law, or from action when absolutely necessary.

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And as in such a model, this trait makes antithetical characters underestimate The Driver, something Teeth learns when The Driver easily disarms him and beats him up. Glasses falls into the same trap. When The Driver eventually takes on the job, he demands that Teeth sit out the robbery, so Glasses uses Fingers as his accomplice, only for Fingers to foul up during the heist and allow an alarm to sound: Glasses is so infuriated he guns Fingers down. Once The Driver delivers him to their rendezvous point in an empty warehouse, Glasses points his pistol at The Driver and makes it clear he’s going to kill him too, mocking him for not killing a gun, only for The Driver to suddenly swing up a pistol from where he’s nursed it out of sight and blow Glasses away. A great, jolting surprise that again obliges both viewers and characters to revise their understanding of The Driver, one reminiscent in a way of Tuco’s “shoot, shoot – don’t talk” quip from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), but without the lilt of black humour, instead striking a bleak, rueing note in confirming The Driver, despite his dislike of guns and violence, knows damn well he has to be good at both in his world. Glasses’ attempt at a double-cross relieves The Driver of any burden to split the take and he heads off to arrange with The Player to swap dirty money for clean.

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Hill’s infusing style on The Driver mimics his writing in trying to film and frame to an essentialist credo. Relatively little of the movie takes place in open daylight, and when it does this is clearly offered as The Detective’s realm rather than The Driver’s, The Detective and his crew hovering around backstreets and rooftops and car parks awaiting calls to action just as The Driver and his ilk parse away time in dim, interior, almost claustrophobic environs. Hill often frames The Driver in relation to faded and battered artworks and fancily framed mirrors on walls in hotels and bars, hinting at the tattered romantic textures lurking behind his life-hardened façade. Cinematographer Philip Lathrop’s photography unfolds in earthy tones of grey, brown, and green, usually only broken up by odd flashes of bolder colour like a cop car’s lights or the balls on a pool table, and relatively colourful locales like the various taverns and the casino have their gaudier colourings muted. The Driver’s visit to pay off The Player at her glitzy, modernist apartment complex feels particularly vital as a thumbnail for Mann’s aesthetic. The duo meet in the sickly greenish glow of fluorescent tube lighting along a blank concrete catwalk that looks like infrastructure for a space centre, and ascend by elevator to hover high above the gleaming cityscape, lowlifes become astronauts by dint of living amidst but not as part of modern American life.

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The inherent visual tension helps draw out Hill’s backdrop thesis regarding American success as release from relationship to history and environment, whereas the losers in The Detective’s parlance must persist in spaces where such things reign over them. Hill’s expect use of Lathrop’s widescreen pictures nudges the edges of Hopper-like abstraction throughout, often moving in for flashes of action and then returning for deadpan medium-long shots scanning corpses and wrecked cars with the equanimity of a classical landscape painter. Hill had to make his driving action scenes feel novel and distinct from famous precursors. It’s been said the template Hill hit upon has proven particularly influential on video games, presumably in the smooth and gliding sense of speed and motion he captures in the key chase sequences, getting close enough to generate immediate intensity but avoiding chaotic freneticism through excessive editing. Often his camera stands relatively aloof from the vehicles, noting their arcs of motion, straining against earth and gravity, so their lines of motion become dance-like, and often framing O’Neal and his passengers, including Adjani in the climax, in a manner that clearly shows them amidst the action. The fact that most of the chase scenes take place in the very early morning allows Hill to let the cars rip with little to stall or frustrate them, instead turning the chases into contests of pure driving skill, tearing through downtown avenues and seamy factory spaces.

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Hill also spurned any music accompanying the chases, employing Michael Small’s mostly electronic scoring with its eerie drones and squiggles strictly for brief passages of atmosphere. Blakely, contrasting her best-known role as the beloved but damaged diva in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), plays The Connection with a veneer of tight-wrapped proficiency, breathy voice and bright red lips contrasting her rather asexual dress style, a fitting partner in free enterprise for The Driver and one he seems tight with, and yet she keeps a wary distance, making clear to The Driver she has no intention of getting killed for his sake when he gets her to dig up a fence for the cash. Hill’s more ruthless brand of humour shades into horror as Teeth corners The Connection in her apartment and makes her reveal where the money handover is to take place by inserting the barrel of his huge pistol deep in her mouth. The Connection quickly coughs up the required information and tells Teeth she told The Driver she wouldn’t die for him, only for Teeth to push a pillow over her face and shoot her through it, as if delivering his own, cold punchline to a cosmic joke. The brutal, quasi-sexual violence here renders the games of dominance throughout the film at their most palpable and disturbing extreme, underlining for Teeth as Glasses’ killing of Fingers did for him that he’s truly dangerous, like a rabid animal that must be put down, and the hard lesson The Connection doesn’t live long enough to learn its no-one can stand neutral from the fate of their allies in such a world.

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The climax is set up as The Driver has The Player meet The Exchange Man (Denny Macko) at Union Station only for Teeth to pounce and snatch the purse containing the key to the locker containing the clean money. The Detective chases down the fence and shoots him as he tries to elude the cop on a train rolling out of the station, whilst The Driver, with The Player in tow, chases after Teeth and his new driver ‘The Kid’ (Frank Bruno) in a careening duel of speed and skill, with The Driver behind the wheel of a sturdy pick-up truck he’s stolen opposed to The Kid’s flashy muscle car, which just cannot shake him. Hill’s choice of vehicles in this scene works both as a visual joke inverting marketable images, the streamlined and fearsome lifestyle accoutrement unable to outrun the boxy and utilitarian machine, and as a metaphor for Hill’s preference for plebeian solidity over flash, and with The Driver and The Player remaining perfectly pokerfaced throughout. The battle resolves in a warehouse where the two vehicles stalk each-other before The Driver’s nerveless way with a game of chicken causes his opponent to crash spectacularly (and finally cracks The Player’s stoic veneer), and Teeth finds himself beaten again, this time more finally, as the contest between him and The Driver winnows down to the more elemental and classical art with a gun, an epic moment that gains a moment of salutary humour as The Kid hightails away, happy to survive his first and probably last tilt at the criminal big leagues.

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This battle seems to finally anoint The Driver as the Western hero reborn, chasing down varmints, equally accomplished on his steed and at the draw, existing outside civilised norms but imposing cohesion on a wild landscape through sheer force of will and discipline. There’s one last part of the game to play out, however, as he and The Player return to Union Station to retrieve the money only to find The Detective and a line of cops ready to nab him. The bag he takes out of the locker proves however to be empty, part of a rip-off intended by the deceased Exchange Man, leaving The Detective without the necessary evidence to arrest The Driver. The Player and The Driver both stride in their separate directions, dissolving into the dark, whilst The Detective finds himself the butt of a droll and queasy gag as he’s quite literally left holding the bag. A denouement that deflates multiple balloons, validating neither the lawman nor the outlaw, official and rebellious perspective each found wanting, at least on the scoreboard level The Detective so eloquently extols. But The Driver, having ridden his wave to the end and come out clean, has emerged with a more rarefied form of capital, his creed fulfilled, his body intact and free, even if perhaps destined only to continue on his sharklike way a few more nights.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Australian cinema, Fantasy

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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Director: George Miller

By Roderick Heath

Mad Max (1979) was a weird and unexpectedly popular film made by George Miller, a young doctor who turned to filmmaking in his spare time during his residency training. Miller had already revealed an antic talent and gory sense of humour with his short film Violence in the Cinema, Part 1 (1971). His first feature evidently aimed to transplant the ’70s craze for car chase movies into the Aussie landscape, a smart commercial move considering that adulation of the car was and is one of the nation’s major religious movements. Miller and his initial cowriter James McCausland went a step further than the usual run of car chase flicks pitting redneck cops against raffish criminals. Perhaps borrowing a little from A Clockwork Orange (1971), Damnation Alley (1976), and Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), Miller set the film in a hazily futuristic time of a decayed social order where the roads were battlegrounds for marauders. His cops were badass neo-knights battling rampaging scum, and his hero, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), was that popular figure of ’70s genre cinema, the good man pushed too far by lowlifes. The film was a hit both at home and overseas, albeit after a dub job for U.S. distribution. Miller expanded the series with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), which pushed the concept into the realm of myth and depicted a properly post-apocalyptic landscape, and then Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Each film was exponentially more expensive and ambitious than the one before, and Gibson became an international star. Miller’s love of a bygone brand of big, sweeping, elemental cinema was laced with visual and thematic overtones borrowed from John Ford, Howard Hawks, David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, and especially Sergio Leone, whose offbeat, proto-punkish spaghetti westerns became a particular touchstone.
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The Mad Max films have been remembered with rare fondness, particularly the middle episode, for their kinetic force, their exotic creativity, and specific, instantly influential roster of ideas and images. These films were quintessential artefacts of the early days of video, providing an easy bridging point between the drive-ins and home entertainment. Imitations exploded, at first in cheap Italian knock-offs and eventually in big-budget riffs like Waterworld (1995). In their native land, the Mad Max films were admired in themselves, and considered just about the only salvageable relics of Aussie cinema’s flirtation with genre filmmaking until the reawakened interest in Ozploitation in the 2000s; indeed, there is a serious case to be made for The Road Warrior as the best film ever made Down Under. Beyond Thunderdome, an attempt to take the series upmarket and give it Spielbergian appeal, was a great-looking and thoughtful entry that nonetheless skimped terribly on action, and many felt Miller had pulled his creation’s teeth. Ever since Miller, a truly talented filmmaker, has, like George Lucas, wasted a lot of that talent trying to be a one-man film industry.
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Miller had been mooting a fourth episode since the mid-1990s, and now, finally, it has arrived with rising star Tom Hardy slotted into the lead role. Fury Road has been greeted with an enthusiasm bordering on the orgiastic by critics and fans. That’s not so surprising. The appeal of the series was always based on the outlandish and the disreputable, and the new film, armed with a blockbuster budget, has on the face of it at least the jagged, thumping appeal of a heavy-metal album in a sea of autotune pop. One unique quirk of the Mad Max series was that each episode, although linked by certain elements, represented a partial reboot rather than mere sequel to the previous one, remixing certain ideas and characterisations, thus lending itself rather neatly to recomposition 30 years down the track. Fury Road quickly reveals itself determined to a fault not to repeat the perceived mistakes of Beyond Thunderdome.
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Just how deeply Australian the Mad Max films were is necessary to note outright, most particularly their sense of the landscape as both a limitlessly boding expanse and a harsh and withholding thing where paucity dictates adaptation, and their vision of civilisation as a crude assemblage of spare parts left lying about by other cultures. Miller took the Oz-gothic vision of Ted Kotcheff’s seminal Wake in Fright (1971), which contemplated the ugly, unstable tone of devolved aggression that can be seen in some pockets of the continent, and gave it a purpose. He also quoted the wild, frenetic, purposefully crude inventiveness coming out of the nation’s pop cultural quarters in the late ’70s: in the weird panoply of grotesques that form the human world of Miller’s early vision lies the grubby energy welling out of grungy pub rock scenes, art schools, and the burgeoning gay and punk scenes. At the time this was cutting edge; now it’s all rather retro. Miller went to town mimicking the sweeping widescreen visions and strident, epic-sounding music associated with a brand of big movie-making that was fallow for most of the ‘70s: Miller made blockbusters on a budget. Mad Max: Fury Road, which cost $150 million, can’t argue such handmade pizzazz, and Miller had to work his fascination with creating weird little worlds and exploring their sensibilities with a near-constant barrage of thrills and spills.
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Hardy’s Max is glimpsed at the outset framed against the horizon, gazing into the distance, before stamping on a two-headed mutant lizard in an attempt to quell the semi-psychotic buzzing in his head—the voices of the people he tried and failed to save in the past, including his daughter. No time to stand around, however; Max quickly gets into his battered, old Interceptor and flees ahead of a squadron of hunter hotrods. They manage to wreck his vehicle, drag him out, and take him to the Citadel controlled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a hulking aged warlord. Many citizens of the Citadel suffer from “half-life,” or a congenital anaemia usually accompanied by cancerous tumours that cause early death, and one half of Joe’s power rests on his ability to find strong donors to keep the others alive; the other half is control of an underground water supply. The culture of the Citadel includes his army of “War Boys,” young half-lifes kept functioning by blood donors, or “blood-bags” as they’re called, and controlled through promises of an afterlife in Valhalla if they die in combat for him. Joe also has a coterie of beautiful young woman kept as a concubines in a vault. Max is tethered, and his back is tattooed with his status as a universal donor. Before his captors can brand him, Max breaks free and nearly escapes, only to be recaptured. He’s given to one waning War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as a blood-bag. Meanwhile Joe’s top “Imperator” Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads men out on a supply run to the nearby cities that produce fuel oil and weapons Behind the wheel of her war-rig, an armed and armoured long-range fuel truck, Furiosa drives off the beaten path into the wastelands, stringing along her soldiers and plunging them into a battle with wasteland marauders. Joe soon realises what’s happened: Furiosa is helping the concubines escape.
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Characterising Immortan Joe as a primitive tyrant with a taste for harem flesh might be seen as Miller having a sly dig at one of the basic appeals of his creation: the possibility that future civilisation decline would return humankind to barbarism and the unrestrained indulgence of primal appetites and discourteous sexuality, a notion exploited all too enthusiastically by the not-so-different Gor novels by John Norman. Some of the ugliest moments in Miller’s first two films in the series involved the pansexual rape habits of its villains, so Miller may be issuing a mea culpa as he takes on the theme of liberating sex slaves. The storyline mildly upbraids such a fantasy landscape’s appeal in repeatedly noting the stripping away of dignity and agency, something inflicted on Max as well as the young concubines, as he spends many scenes strapped to the front of Nux’s car as he gives chase, feeding him lifeblood. Easy enough, too, to read Joe as a caricature of just about any arbiter of social control, as he keeps his War Boys’ heads screwed with religion and his populace on a leash with carefully rationed water: he warns his populace as he pours water upon them not to become addicted to it, lest they resent its general absence.
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Nux has the strongest, most interesting character arc in the film—point of fact, the only character arc. He charges into battle with fellow berserker Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), mouth spray-painted with silvery gloss to evoke the chrome-plated bumper bar of Death, desperate to live up to his creed only to be jolted out of the death-hungry obsession by his own failures. He slowly changes loyalty to the ragged team of heroes whilst Erectus becomes his personal nemesis in the pursuing armada. Hoult, usually cast as cupid-lipped young romantics, has a blast playing such a loose-screw, physical character.
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Meanwhile the coterie of pulchritudinous fugitives—heavily pregnant favourite The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), flame-locked Capable (Riley Keough), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton)—are characterised not as feyly naïve or absurdly tough, but as a pack of sarcastically articulate waifs out of their depth and yet committed to their Quixotic mission, tucked under Furiosa’s wing and doing their best to operate in the ferocity of the moment. I’m not quite sure if anything about their characterisations makes sense in context, though. They’re children of the post-apocalyptic world but say they don’t want their children to be warlords. What else are they going to be? Conceptual artists? Miller should have gone back to Kurosawa to remind himself of how characters set in worlds run by different rules should act.
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Max’s first proper glimpse of this coterie of bounteous female forms has them arrayed against the desert sand and sky in diaphanous silks and chastity belts like some particularly collectable Sports Illustrated foldout. Furiosa herself likes to shave her head and rub engine grease on her forehead as war paint, and has a mechanical left arm. Theron proves again she’s a performer of sneaky craft as she finds depth in a swiftly sketched character with real art, moving supply and convincingly from steely war face to shows of pathos and personal longing and anguish. Her Monster (2003) Oscar notwithstanding, I can’t help but wonder if Theron hasn’t finally found her metier here as a rudely charismatic bruiser. That Furiosa is in many ways the real protagonist of the film is Fury Road’s open secret. Max is at first frantic to the point of, yes, madness—understandable considering the indignities he suffers in the film’s opening scenes. He finally breaks free when Nux crashes his vehicle chasing Furiosa’s war-rig into a sandstorm, and his initial meeting with the cabal of females is a tense and coercive standoff, as he’s initially obsessed only with survival. Standoff turns into a three-way punch-up, as Nux, still chained to his escaped blood-bag, leaps into the fray, and Max alternates between fighting off Furiosa and stopping Nux from killing her. Max at first tries to leave them all behind, but finds the war-rig won’t go because Furiosa’s kill switches have to be cleared in an order only she knows. Furiosa convinces him to take her and the other women aboard, and, of course, uneasy partnership soon becomes unshakeable alliance.
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The basic story of Fury Road reminded me more than a little of Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert (1970) with way more action, blended with a solid B-western like Charge at Feather River (1953). Miller sprinkles stirringly bizarre, funny-appalling flourishes throughout Fury Road, proving something of his old, wicked sense of humour remains. Joe has a battery farm of tubby ladies having their breast siphoned as foodstuff that Joe trades as a delicacy. The escaped concubines pause to rid themselves of their detested chastity belts, which have barbed spikes protecting them from penetration. A remote patch of bog is home to a tribe of weirdoes living on stilts. Joe’s armada comes equipped with one vehicle carrying multiple drummers and electric guitarist for mobile war music, a touch that represents Fury Road’s most inspired nod to the rock ’n roll spirit that lurked within the original series’ texture, as well as providing perhaps this entry’s keenest example of the series’ habit of melding ancient ideas with the new. If Fury Road was nothing but such moments, it might have added up to a gonzo classic of crazy-trashy inspiration. But there’s not nearly enough humour to the film, nor enough real inspiration to its running set-pieces.
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Here we get into the greater problems with this entry. The price Miller has paid to make such an inflated reboot has been to do like a lot of modern action directors and essentially turn the last act—the climactic chases from the second two original Mad Max films—and inflate them into an entire movie. The first half-hour sets a hard-charging pace the film can’t sustain but damn well tries, what with Max’s attempted escape through the labyrinth of the Citadel whilst besieged by flash-cut memories of his past failures quickly segueing into Furiosa’s escape. I was near being put off the film right from get-go: Miller over-directs to an absurd degree as he sets the film racing, starting with that annoying CGI lizard and the tumult of psychic ghosts tormenting Max that reduce the necessary reintroduction of the character to a barrage of cheesy camera effects. The very opening suggests a dialogue of intense, meditative quiet and thunderous action might begin, but instead there’s only thunder.
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Miller’s most inspired touches of world-building are steamrollered into the tar along with everything else. The illogic that’s often leaked out the edges of Miller’s world—the amount of petrol the villains wasted in The Road Warrior was about the same as what they were chasing—here returned in watching Immortan Joe piss water away on desert sands. Apparently none of his subject populace of human flotsam have thought to put in some kind of collecting basin or sink. Miller has his image of mock-beneficent tyrant’s egotism and human pathos, and goes no further in setting us up with either a social metaphor of real force or a villain of great stature. In spite of the film’s thematic evocations, it’s as simplistic on the level of metaphor as can be, and the raving about the film’s feminist angles in some quarters ignores the fact that the “hero saves evil king’s sex-slaves” plot is one of the oldest in pulp adventuring. Of course, we live in a time where crude and basic lip-service to political themes in movies is popular for painting our Rorschach sensibilities onto (see also The Hunger Games films), so Fury Road is quite on trend in that regard. For all the faults of Beyond Thunderdome and its big, shameless debts to Lord of the Flies and Riddley Walker, it had a depth and a wistful poetry that completely eludes Fury Road, in moments like the haunting scene where Max is treated to a creation-myth-cum-history via a relic Viewmaster where random images from a vanished civilisation have been patched together to illustrate it. There’s a hint of this in the recurring phrase asked by the concubines, “Who killed the world?”, indicting the warmongers of the future with the warmongers of the past, but without pausing to note the irony of trying to touch on pacifistic themes whilst dancing the audience giddily into a sea of carnage.
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Once the action kicks into gear, the early battles and the finale are the strongest, but in the middle comes some well-staged but uninspired stuff, including an attempt to get the war-rig unstuck from the mud, whilst one of Joe’s allies, the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), randomly and stupidly fires off his guns into murk. It begs the question: how did any of these halfwits survive the apocalypse? Miller can think up a lot of things, but not a nonviolent action set-piece for his truckers that can hold a candle to the sequence in Ice Cold in Alex (1959) where the heroes have to hand-crank their vehicle up a hill, or the bridge crossing in Sorcerer (1977).
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In spite of the film’s efforts to honour the force of the original trilogy’s realistic action sequences, here swathes of CGI still must paint the skies. Still, Miller’s respect for landscape and physical context emerges throughout. Production problems meant that Fury Road had to be shot in Namibia rather than the hallowed turf of the Aussie outback, but the vistas are just as powerfully barren and stunningly vast (if also heavily digitally tweaked), and many of the best, though relatively few, moments of the film come when Miller draws back to behold this grand arena for perpetual human foolishness. One touch that did tickle me was Miller basing some of the wasteland marauders’ vehicles on the famous spiky Volkswagen Beetle from The Cars that Ate Paris.
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Dramatically speaking, Fury Road is a near-total bust however, often reducing the honourable creed of the junk action flick to moving wallpaper of bangs and booms and crashes. They’re damn well done bangs and booms and crashes, make no mistake: Fury Road is a magnificent movie production, one that clearly demanded inspiring levels of commitment to put together. But like last year’s John Wick, which also gained many plaudits from critics I’d expect to know better, Fury Road frustrated me with the presumption that an action flick can and should just be a series of Pavlovian set-pieces. Miller has a talent for fitting vignettes of humanity into the sprawl of excess, and the ones that come are interesting, like Furiosa admitting she wants “redemption” for aiding Joe for so long, and Nux connecting with Capable, the least cynical of the escapees; Keough gives a quietly luminous performance that stands out amongst her fellows, though that might be because she actually has a proper interaction with another character. But the character reflexes are astonishingly clipped and basic. Nux changes side with barely a blink, and Max and Furiosa shift from trying to kill each other to palsy-walsy in a couple of minutes.
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The bad guys particularly suffer from this thinness. Part of the force of the first two Mad Max entries lay in the fact that Miller was willing to contemplate, horror-movielike, the dread of characters failing in their personal missions of protection and the loss of loved ones to the new barbarians, and his ability to think up cool avatars of evil. Here Miller reduces that element to backstory visualised in the worst way possible. Keays-Byrne’s velvet-voiced, charismatic, if often overripe, presence was one of the most entertaining in Aussie TV and film of the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s great to see him restored to his rightful place as overlord of villains. Yet he’s completely wasted as Immortan Joe, who’s just a weak retread of Lord Humungus, lacking his real physical menace, mixed with traits from Dune’s Baron Harkonnen, and he remains a mere action figure in place of a villain. Perhaps it’s admirable we don’t get scenes of the concubines being raped or mistreated, but the film lacks basic melodramatic spurs and thus the delight in seeing evil regime churned into scrap metal. Moreover, Joe’s actual comeuppance is so clumsy and helter-skelter that I almost wondered why Miller bothered.
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Furiosa, finding her beloved childhood birthplace no longer exists and sinking to her knees to scream in fury to the desert, is supposed to register as an emotional highpoint, but doesn’t really cut it, considering the character’s had about 15 lines of dialogue and the hoped-for Eden has only ever registered before as a tossed-off McGuffin. Late in the film, Miller introduces a new set of protagonists to add to the band of heroes—the Vuvalini, a small remnant tribe of women ranging from young and dashing “Valkyrie” (Megan Gale) to aged matriarchs, including “Keeper of the Seeds” (the always wonderful Melissa Jaffer). Like so much else in the film, these ladies deserve and demand far more time to impress themselves upon us, and the notion of a pack of gun-wielding grannies on choppers is delightful, but they’re tossed into the drama moments before the big finish revs up. Thus, moments like the Valkyries’ eruption into battle don’t carry much weight: it’s just more stuff happening.
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Frankly, although the final chase sequence represents a breathless piece of cinema construction and risky filming, I didn’t enjoy it half as much as the jungle chase of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which emphasised fluid lines of camera motion to better read complex action using moving vehicles as mobile platforms in a running battle. Miller tries to do the same thing here, but changes camera positions and edits the stunt work too frenetically, with no sense of rhythm for the daring and the interplay of elements to register. But perhaps the biggest void in Fury Road is Max himself. Hardy seemed on paper like perfect casting as Max redux: he’s an actor of great sensitivity who has powerful star presence and also can look convincingly tough. His performances in Warrior (2011) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) elevated both: the mordant humour as well as threat he invested in Bane has proven over time to be one of the latter film’s coups. But here he proves startlingly weak. At first he makes a stab at an Aussie brogue, but his accent skids about like slick tyres on an oily road, and he sometimes barely seems present in the movie. Trapped behind the mask he wears for much of the film, Hardy looks vaguely like some downmarket Daniel Craig clone. This isn’t entirely his fault. If I didn’t know better I’d suspect the screenplay was, like the second two Die Hard movies, one of those blockbuster imitation spec scripts that someone thought might as well be repurposed as a sequel for the model, so disposable is Max’s presence throughout much of the film. Max has been robbed of all of his mythic stature and specific gravitas.
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I have suspected one of the reasons the series lay fallow for so long was because by the end of Beyond Thunderdome , Max as a character had reached a point in stasis. For all the alarum and affray here, it’s still rather obvious that Miller is unwilling to nudge him even slightly past the pose of eternal wanderer. That’s not necessarily a problem—after all, Zatoichi clocked up 20-odd films in his rootless wanderings and remained entertaining—but Max here just never feels particularly important, vital, or distinctive. The man who “carries Mr. Death in his pocket” has become just another player in a busy landscape. What Fury Road does well is just about the only thing it does: stage fast-paced road action. Fury Road is a triumph of high-powered editing masquerading as awesome swashbuckling fun, but much of the soul of this creation has been left by the roadside like so many burnt-out spark plugs: it’s an almost complete dud on an emotional level—and this kind of filmmaking runs on emotion. Yes, it is a good action movie. But it could have, and should have, aimed higher.

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