The movie might be flawed, but Driver’s performance (playing opposite the similarly excellent Alba Rohrwacher) is outstanding, winning him the Volpi Cup at the Venice film festival. He plays Jude, a young man who meets his future wife Mina (Rohrwacher) in New York when they are bizarrely locked in a restaurant toilet together. They marry, have a baby and at first everything is wonderful – but then she begins to show symptoms of postpartum psychosis and Jude has an agonising dilemma: if and when to take the baby away from her. Driver plays it with overwhelming sincerity and force.
In Terry Gilliam’s film version of Don Quixote (which reached screens two years ago after decades of production delays), Driver plays loyal squire Sancho Panza to Jonathan Pryce’s gallant Quixote in probably the most counterintuitive casting of his career. In this postmodern reading of the story, he is a jaded TV ad director who stumbles across a DVD of his first film, a low-budget version of Quixote using non-professionals. He tracks down his original cast, only to find that the old guy playing the lead (Pryce) was tipped over into a state of Quixotic delusion by the experience and now spends his days trying to right wrongs. Driver tries to keep up with this anarchic figure, much like Panza, and his deadpan face works well with Gilliam’s wacky comedy.
Facebook Twitter With Jonathan Pryce in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Photograph: Allstar/AMAZON STUDIOS
Driver’s way of suggesting stern, gaunt severity made him a natural for this labour of love from Martin Scorsese, a mysterious parable of Christian martyrdom based on the 1966 novel Silence by Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo. Driver and Andrew Garfield play Garrpe and Rodrigues, two 17th-century missionary priests from Portugal who journey undercover to Japan, to discover what has happened to their charismatic mentor Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson – who has reportedly been forced under threat of torture to convert to Buddhism. Driver is haunted and passionate and looks like one of the early Christian martyrs. It is perhaps a pity that Garfield has most of the big scenes, and maybe the casting should have been reversed, giving Driver more to do – perhaps even Neeson’s part. But as it is, he gives his own inimitable maturity and seriousness to the film.
Driver plays a very bizarre figure in this very bizarre film – the melodramatic musical fantasia conceived by Russell and Ron Mael of the band Sparks, and directed by Leos Carax. He is the conceited and aggressive LA standup comedian-provocateur Henry, who shuffles on stage like a boxer and whose rantings are given a new edge by his own paranoid sense of a fading career. But he is in love – with a stylish and beautiful opera singer, Ann, played by Marion Cotillard. Henry has a habit of showing up at the opera house after the show on his throbbingly huge motorbike to whisk her off to their home in the hills to make love. Soon they have a child called Annette whose strange destiny makes Henry into a monstrous yet pathetic figure. Driver’s singing voice (though used more powerfully elsewhere) certainly comes through here and his great gaunt face is almost a cartoon of tragic pain.
Facebook Twitter Driver in Logan Lucky. Photograph: Radial/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Once again Driver shows us what he can do in the world of comedy in Steven Soderbergh’s quirkily distinctive heist caper. He plays Clyde Logan, a guy with a philosophical view on life and a twangy southern accent who once served in the US military in Iraq where he lost his hand and now works behind a bar, adroitly mixing drinks with his one remaining hand. His brother Jimmy, played by Channing Tatum, has just got fired from his job at a Nascar race track and has figured out a way to steal money from the concession stands, and so the two brothers embark on their chaotic crime quest with the help of an explosives genius played by Daniel Craig. As so often in the past, a lot of Driver’s comedy potential is fulfilled by him simply showing up – his great deadpan Easter Island statue face in strong contrast to the absurd things happening around him.
Facebook Twitter With Ben Stiller in While We’re Young. Photograph: Nicole Rivelli
Driver gives his most purely unsympathetic and parasitic character in Noah Baumbach’s tragicomedy of midlife, quite different from the cool, self-contained integrity that he usually projects. He plays Jamie, the entirely insufferable but confident and charismatic young would-be documentary film-maker who befriends Josh, an established director played by Ben Stiller. Josh is at a moment of male-menopausal crisis; his personal and professional life is stagnating, and he becomes infatuated with this new best friend, yearning for the magic world of youth, even mimicking Jamie’s appalling habit of wearing a hipster hat indoors. But Jamie is duplicitous and parasitical, and Driver nails his way of being ingenuously wide-eyed about the creative world and also his entitlement, self-love and self-pity. Jamie is a fascinatingly horrible figure, seen through Josh’s resentful and envious eyes.
Spike Lee’s broad satirical comedy of race politics in the US is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the black Colorado officer who in the 70s masterminded the infiltration of a KKK chapter by posing as a white bigot over the phone. He is played by John David Washington and Driver plays Ron’s partner Flip, a Jewish man who is hardly less conflicted about their imposture. It is he who has to do the face-to-face playacting, pretending to be a new recruit, hanging out with the creepy racists with their Holocaust-denial and antisemitic obsession and having to submit to their sinister initiation rituals and dysfunctional self-hate. Flip’s super-cool refusal to be cowed or bullied by the KKK good ol’ boys makes this a very powerful Driver performance.
Facebook Twitter Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.
3. Star Wars VII-IX (2015-2019)
Driver’s histrionic performance as the gorgeously spiteful and haughty villain Kylo Ren, grandson of the hated but perhaps also tragically pained Darth Vader, is probably the single greatest feature of the mighty Star Wars VII-IX sequel trilogy, his formidable height and physique giving something Arthurian to those light sabre duels. His appearance in the last of these, Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), was bracingly fierce, with some fascinatingly quasi-erotic duelling between Kylo and Daisy Ridley’s Rey, although perhaps not as powerful as his debut in the role in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015), in which he thrilled audiences with Kylo’s almost capricious abuse of power and his fastidious, amused contempt for his enemies’ weaknesses. But for me his greatest outing as Kylo was in Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi (2017), in which he was a wounded, damaged figure, insinuating himself like a sensually predatory Satan into our consciousness. He seems vulnerable here: tremulous and uncertain, like a teenager, his mouth almost on the point of dissolving into tears.
Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a wonderfully gentle, distinctively idealistic and unironic film and Driver’s outstanding lead perfornance gives us a chance to see how powerfully and persuasively he conveys the idea of humility. It’s a paradox perhaps, considering how virile and showy he often is as an actor. He plays a bus driver called Paterson who lives in the New Jersey town of Paterson and is an amateur poet who admires the poem of the same name by William Carlos Williams about his hometown. As in Logan Lucky, he also happens to be ex-army (Driver himself was in the US Marine Corps) and this gives him something coolly capable, the look of someone who isn’t looking for a fight but isn’t afraid of one. Driver shows us someone who is entirely content with his lot: driving his bus, writing poems on his break – but without any great agony about when his work is going to be recognised – stopping by his neighbourhood bar in the evening for a beer and enjoying a happy, loving relationship with his wife. This is a simple world and Driver’s character is evidently a simple guy – but in a very intelligent and measured way. A deeply satisfying and mature performance.
For Driver fans – and a great many others besides – his performance of Being Alive from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company, is one of the finest moments of cinema in the past decade.
It is one of the sensational scenes in Marriage Story, a drama of divorce based on director Noah Baumbach’s own breakup with Jennifer Jason Leigh. Driver plays Charlie, the brilliant, demanding off-Broadway theatre director who is married to Nicole, a Hollywood actor played by Scarlett Johansson who in effect abandoned her screen career in LA to be in her husband’s theatre company and has found herself personally and creatively sidelined. Driver’s overwhelming charm, not merely with his wife but his entirely besotted mother-in-law (Julie Hagerty) and sister-in-law (Merritt Weaver), makes the breakup agonising for so many people, including Charlie.
Driver has a wonderful tragicomic scene in which he accidentally cuts himself while talking to the child-custody official and trying to present as a smoothly competent parent, unable to admit to her the pain he’s in. Equally showstopping is a horrible rage-filled confrontation with his wife. This is Driver’s alpha-plus male role in an alpha-plus movie.