3 Existential Road movies while I wait for Drive
I’m looking forward to the upcoming video release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which comes out in mid-January. A bunch of folks whose opinion I trust quite liked it and I’m a big fan of the existential road movie genre. Drive got me thinking back to a series of similarly-themed films from a very different time. Three films from another period of social flux, Richard Fleisher’s The Last Run (1971), Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) and Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (also 1971) are all good examples of a kind of artistic contemplation that found a voice in genre filmmaking during this time. For different reasons, all three have generated cult followings for their unique depictions of outsiders trying to escape the clutches of authority and live a life of self-determination. The protagonists in each case are low-level criminals living on the fringes of society and they are connected by a singularly unique skill that they share; they can all drive cars very fast and not get killed doing it. It isn’t coincidental that the automobile is central to the period’s definition of freedom. Sitting in the driver’s seat become an instantly-recognized metaphor for the larger concepts of individual control, anti-authoritarianism and freedom from life’s dreary limitations. The direction, speed, choices, turns, escapes, skids and even the criminal life each had chosen are made tactile and physical behind the wheel of their not-ironically labeled “getaway” cars.
The Last Run (1971)
The Last Run is the least philosophical of the three and it’s more aging gangster flick than expression of counterculture desire. The director, Richard Fleischer was a replacement for John Huston when the notoriously volatile George C. Scott batted heads with Huston early on in the production. Scott plays Harry Garmes, a man living in rural Portugal with only a 1956 BMW convertible and distant memories of a criminal career as a top driver to keep him company. After nine years of retirement, he accepts one last run to transport a wise-ass young killer (played by Tony Musante), who’s escaped from prison and is the polar opposite of the laconic, old-school Harry. Garmes has to drive Paul and his girlfriend across the border to France, avoiding the authorities and the inclination to bitch slap the young upstart killer just on principal. The couple is delivered about half way through the film and then everything goes sideways. Considered a bit of a dud on it’s original release, The Last Run is a striking, existential character study that has aged rather well. George C. Scott was at the top of his game, the screenplay by Alan Sharp (he also did Night Moves) is lean, melancholy, full of attitude, and goes for the least commercial ending possible and cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s camera work is spectacular (working on his first major-studio feature), particularly during a riveting high-speed chase along the winding roads of rural Spain. The weakest link is Fleischer’s sometimes-uneven direction and an ending that’s utterly grim, but doesn’t deliver the requisite restoration of karmic balance that the best crime films do.
The Driver (1978)
From the mid ’70s to the mid ’80s, Walter Hill was a venerated figure among cinephiles. He excelled in the action film genre, but his stylized productions seem to be a creation of his own. His filmography includes some exceptionally-fine films like Hard Times (1975) and The Long Riders (1980), and cult classics like The Warriors (1979) and Streets of Fire (1984), but The Driver is probably his most interesting film. It has a simple storyline: a nameless professional thief who is a genius when it comes to stealing cash, running away with the loot and eluding the authorities. Ryan O’Neal plays the-thief-with-no-name, a mysterious figure who seems to be a living-proof that crime does indeed pay, and pay well. O’Neal blandness as an actor (he’s probably the dullest A-list actor in modern film history), is used great effect by Hill and he turns the actor’s natural lack of charisma to the film’s advantage. O’Neal’s emotionless performance gives his character an aura of icy coolness and mystery which contrasts nicely with his flamboyant adversary, played by the quirky Bruce Dern. Hill neatly exploits these two actors’ wildly diverse acting styles and makes it all work where it rightly shouldn’t.
The Driver sports some excellently-mounted action sequences, but the film is anchored by the struggle between two men at opposite sides of the law, each one trying to outwit the other. In between the car chases and extended cat-and-mouse game played by the two leads, Hill creates what might be described as the first existential caper movie. In just under 90 minutes, he manages both an in-depth exploration of the things that motivate humans to do what they do, and make an interesting study in survival as well. The Driver is not your typical good guy/bad guy movie and the story contains ideas that transcend the film’s tightly-constructed narrative arc. From the descriptions I’ve read about Drive, I’m guessing that Refn and Gosling might have found some of their creative motivations in Hill’s mini-masterpiece… and you could do worse than to cherry pick this story for ideas.
Vanishing Point (1971)
Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point is a stripped-down exercise in pure existentialism, a car chase movie that’s less about the driver and his white, supercharged Dodge Challenger and more about time and the cultural landscape of Vietnam-era America. Barry Newman plays the archetype Kowalski and the car, the road, and pretty much everything else is metaphor. Sarafian chooses to keeps it simple: Kowalski is a delivery driver who insists on taking another car from Colorado to San Francisco despite the protests of a boss concerned that he hasn’t slept in days. He’s a man on the edge and through a series of flashbacks we learn that Kowalski is a Vietnam vet, a cop who was set up on drug charges after stopping his partner from raping a woman and a stock car/motorcycle driver, driven out of both professions by nasty accidents.
After popping too much Benzedrine, Kowalski hops in and immediately hits the road at top speed and quickly catches the attention of the fuzz. And so begins a car chase that starts in Colorado and ends in a sliver of light between two bulldozer blades. As the police presence behind Kowalski grows, he comes to the attention of Super Soul, a DJ who begins to broadcast updates on his 180 mile per hour journey to the promised land. Along the way, Kowalski is assisted by a cross-section of social drop outs – bikers, cultists and what might be the physical manifestation of death.
Everything happening in this movie is told in abstraction. It describes a post-’60s America in decline and slipping. Kowalski can’t seem to get ahead. The country failed him, the legal system failed him, the one beautiful thing in his life dies, accidents stop him from doing what he loves to do and so on. As bleak as things are, the Challenger and the open road is where Kowalski is truly free and it is here that The Man can’t touch him. Super Soul provides the pulsing soundtrack and a jive-laden Greek chorus for the entire affair.
Defined as a philosophical attitude displayed in an individual’s search for authenticity through self-determination, the cinematic examples of existentialism often play out using very accessible language. In general terms, existentialism in film tends to focus on capturing hidden elements of the human experience on screen. Filmmakers tend to frame this experience in the solitude and anxieties of a singular character who, in turn, becomes a conduit where questions about our mortality can be distilled and posed. There is an inherent fatalism associated with the existential protagonist that often finds him, in the end, sacrificing his life for a deeper truth. The pursuit of this greater truth is a lonely exercise, in part because the answer always comes from within the man searching for it. Existential films are in fact about two journeys, one external and the other internal.
Beyond the fast cars, corrupt cops and casual cool that connects these three films, they’re also linked by the deeper meditation on whether it’s possible to be truly liberated and free of society’s rules and conventions. The protagonists seem almost the polar opposites of the contemporary masses of our time. As individuals, they desire immunity from the shackles of conformity… almost as much as this generation seems to crave it. The rugged individualism they represent is the product of a bygone era where being unique and separate has been willingly and intentionally traded away to find acceptance within a community connected by common corporate branding and digital overlap. We’ve whistled away what makes us extraordinary in the bizarre pursuit of what makes us just ordinary. Like lambs to the slaughter, The Man no longer needs to control us because we control ourselves with corporately-sponsored gadgetry that apparently connects everyone in some vast vapour-community. The epic, soulless, emptiness that it all inspires is something we’ll hopefully come to realize now that Steve Jobs’ is dead and buried, but I have my doubts.
The pursuit of individual freedom (and not endless digital connectivity) was once something people seriously considered. The idea… the kernel of what it meant to be free, the alternatives contemplated and how those choices informed our perceptions often found expression in the music, writing and cinema of the time. Today, it seems almost laughable to imagine our society as being capable of thinking on intellectual planes as introspective as that. Even the term “freedom” has been co-opted by the very forces that once defined what the individual was trying to free himself from… which, in point of fact, was the crushing weight of authority and the conformity it demanded. 30 years of Reaganomics and some deft linguistic gymnastics has resulted in the redeployment of the word’s meaning. Freedom is a term that now has a distinctly-American neo-con stain on it. It is less a concept than a catchphrase for Tea Party bozos and failed Presidents.
What continues to resonate within films like the three noted above, is their purity of spirit. They are all at once genre pictures and profoundly insightful dissertations on what it means to be human. I can’t think of a film in recent years that even skirts these issues and I wonder if the existential film has simply slipped into irrelevance in our race to connect to the next stranger sitting in front of their computer and looking for something they’ll never find.