How Adam Driver Gets Under Our Skin

The 'Star Wars' and 'Girls' alum repeatedly delivers fresh takes on character tropes, imploring audiences to search for nuance in movies of all genres.

Adam Driver Paterson
Window Frame Films

Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a new actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling.


This week, we’re tilting the spotlight towards an actor who has been notably edging his way into the film industry for almost 10 years, steadily crafting himself into one of Hollywood’s most interesting and formidable leading men. Adam Driver, best known for his roles as the polarizing sorta-baddie Kylo Ren in Star Wars and the conflicting jackass boyfriend in HBO’s Girls, has consistently turned in impressive performances and boasted variety within his full-bodied work. To absolutely no one’s surprise, he’s accumulated numerous accolade nominations over the years across various major organizations, critics’ circles, and film festivals. This includes having been tapped for multiple Academy Awards, Emmys, and Screen Actors Guild Awards.

That is precisely what makes Driver the perfect first candidate for the Actor’s Resumé. Frankly, he would’ve made a worthy addition to my list of 2010’s best breakouts, too. Driver has the uncanny ability to unpack potentially infuriating and awful characters, making them far more interesting and sensitive. He plays both gawkishness and elegance to expert degrees.

Hence, audiences have the opportunity to not only delve deep into the nuance of his craft, uncovering the many layers of his core strengths and actorly ticks. Moreover, viewers can actually hope to unearth cinematic gems found in Driver’s lesser-known works. Upon immersing myself in Driver’s filmography, one thing is thankfully certain: he chooses solid projects throughout his career.

Admittedly, sometimes the extent of his involvement essentially amounts to cameos. J. Edgar and Lincoln rely on Driver to almost disappear completely into the mise-en-scène. Consequently, they end up sidelining him too much. That said, you’d remember the best of Driver’s more minuscule roles once he gets to imbue them with some kind of idiosyncratic energy.

For instance, Driver may not be a Meyerowitz in long-time collaborator Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, but in depicting a cracking caricature of an overbearing client, he taps into a memorable self-centered archetype he has honed since Girls. In contrast, as seen in the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, his spirited vocalizations lend undeniable zest to one of the soundtrack’s best songs, “Please Mr. Kennedy.”

Even in more significant supporting roles during the pre-Star Wars era, Driver reins in his most over-the-top and superficial characters with a keen sense of self-awareness. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha – the first film in a long-standing creative partnership between the actor and filmmaker – gives him plenty of screentime to be an amusing rich kid without taking away from the film’s core message about the flitting existence of the modern woman.

Tracks, which was directed by John Curran, sees Driver fill a much gentler role opposite Mia Wasikowska’s fiery, uncompromising leading lady. He is so muted and sparing in that film that an explosively vulgar turn in Michael Dowse’s The F Word comes across all the more outrageous and hilarious in its slobby crassness.

The call of the dark side in a galaxy far, far away beckons, but Driver was already making waves on the big screen in the year prior. 2014 saw the release of Hungry Hearts, While We’re Young, and This is Where I Leave You. For want of a better phrase, these movies operate like a collective major flex, providing Driver with multiple avenues to solidify his place as a uniquely transformative actor. His depictions of volatile emotional messiness don’t negate a persistent interest in his characters’ morality and humanity.

Adam Driver This Is Where I Leave You

In Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts, Driver plays a mostly docile and open-hearted young man whose happenstance foray into romance turns tumultuous and destructive. The film begins with him delivering an artful amalgam of awkward charm and stifled anxiety, but these emotions are further complicated when utmost desperation is introduced into the fold.

On the flip side, While We’re Young — yet another collaboration between Driver and Baumbach — leans further towards his eccentric asshole schtick. Driver portrays a fresh-faced wannabe documentary filmmaker whose spontaneity appears seductive at first. Before long, the audience even begins to question his authenticity as an artist. He is, in truth, multifaceted, complex, and imperfect, though.

Finally, Shawn Levy’s This is Where I Leave You is one of Driver’s most underrated ensemble works to date. Finding humor within narratives about death is a tricky balancing act, especially when the characters in question all engage in acrimonious activities. Still, Driver ensures that his frustrating playboy wildcard navigates himself towards some satisfyingly earned emotional absolution.

Upon entering the era of Driver’s heavy-hitters, including convoluted self-discovery across the Skywalker Saga, he’s been on a roll for several years straight. He seems to be collecting famous directors at this point as he settles comfortably into being a major player in a plethora of film work spanning multiple genres.

For starters, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, and Terry Gilliam’s 30-year passion project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote make full use of Driver’s well-oiled comedic sensibilities. The first is a heist movie reminiscent of Soderbergh’s greatest, weirdly and lovingly done in favor of its bumbling protagonists. The Dead Don’t Die sports an analogously off-beat spirit compared to the Soderbergh film, operating as an uproariously delightful meta-commentary on the zombie genre and the state of modern-day genre films. As for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, it is Driver at his freest and possibly strangest. He goes on a vast psychedelic odyssey steeped in surrealism before it eventually culminates in the acknowledgment of deeply discomfiting self-truths.

It is to Driver’s credit that he so easily assimilates into the quirkiness of atypical comedy flicks to varying degrees. I mean, “GHOULS!” really is one of the best line deliveries of 2019.

Driver’s more somber leading performances are all worthy of our attention for different reasons, as well. Of all the different iterations of the dude that I’ve come across, a soft-hearted Driver is most definitely my favorite. His first collaboration with Jarmusch, Paterson, is the perfect embodiment of this persona. In general, Jarmusch’s impeccable eye for detail creates ethereal landscapes by default. In The Dead Don’t Die, the zombie apocalypse has rarely looked this good. In Paterson, the sheer mundanity of everyday life looks idyllic. However, Driver makes his eponymous character in the latter feel grounded and real. The bus driver Paterson is potentially rough around the edges, despite his seemingly picturesque, uncomplicated life. In complementing Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic images through his embodiment of the tender everyman, Driver succeeds in spades.

Martin Scorsese’s demanding Silence is one of the heftiest challenges for Driver to endure, not least of all because his role as a Jesuit priest on a desperate pursuit of faith is so physically transformative. It is a necessarily draining film, purposely languid in its contemplations about faith and spirituality, and extreme in its resulting emotional potency.

Alternatively, although Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman does tread in some comedic waters, its vital social commentary and weighty themes pertaining to racism and white supremacy bubble beneath what is ultimately a nail-biting biographical thriller that’s too important to brush off. In BlacKkKlansman, Driver’s performance exudes cold steeliness alongside a simmering unfettered sense of justice, and he deservedly received his first Academy Award nomination for his work in the film.

Blackkklansman

Now, if you’ve noticed a discernible lack of focus on Kylo Ren throughout this article, that was absolutely the point. As much as Ben Solo has broodily etched himself on the hearts of many (while simultaneously spurring immense, if legitimately baffling, hatred among other pockets of the Internet), Star Wars needed Driver more than he needed the franchise. Thankfully, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi provides the actor with some real acting challenges in the sequel trilogy, utilizing his affinity for dualism.

Driver continues to fine-tune his chameleonic craft in the rest of his 2019 projects. Scott Z. Burns’ thriller The Report, as well as his fourth Baumbach film, Marriage Story, aren’t necessarily huge dramatic vehicles; at least, not on a narrative level. However, despite any danger of conventionality, Driver successfully translates the subtlest of character cues in the form of micro-expressions and individualized physical habits. He was my personal Best Actor pick among the nominees at the 92nd Oscars ceremony, and I do firmly believe he should’ve been more highly decorated during the 2020 awards season.

As one of the most fascinating and adaptable actors of his generation, Driver often encourages audiences to reframe their mindsets about male character archetypes. And given the scope of his talent, one could probably be forgiven for thinking he suits the glitz and glamor of award shows. Yet Driver proves that time and time again, he doesn’t need bombast. In a word, he is surprising. And he belongs onscreen for a very long time to come.

(Contributor)

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Particularly loves writing stuff and things with a feminist bent here at Film School Rejects.