In a recent Q&A at the Lincoln Center about his eccentric new rock musical Annette—in which a celebrity couple played by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard become parents to a big-eared female marionette with an angelic singing voice—French director Leos Carax was asked about the unique malleability of his male lead. For the past four decades, Carax has been collaborating with his chameleonic countryman Denis Lavant, a spectacular shapeshifter who played nearly a dozen roles in 2012’s exuberant Holy Motors (including a sewer-dwelling mutant). Speaking with moderator Devika Girish of Film Comment, Carax perceived something kindred to Lavant in Driver’s highly physical acting style. “[They’re both] like monkeys,” the director said. “But I like monkeys. … When they don’t move, they look like statues; when they move, they look like dancers.”
The simian thing is key to Driver’s affect in Annette. His character, one Henry McHenry, is a kamikaze stand-up comedian whose controversial stage persona is the “Ape of God” (he even splatters a banana before going onstage). The question of how a misanthropic performance artist would sell out theaters across L.A. and dominate TMZ-style gossip shows while joking about blow jobs and gas chambers is one of several dozen mysteries that Carax’s wildly stylized film bulldozes over through sheer, delirious commitment to the bit. Working closely with the pop duo Sparks (who conceived the story and wrote the score), Carax piles on absurdist touches—secret trysts, supernatural curses, vengeful mermaids, a distinctly European version of a Super Bowl halftime show—until the whole enterprise threatens to buckle under its weight. Annette runs almost two and a half hours and feels longer; it doesn’t have Holy Motors’ fast-twitch momentum. But Driver carries this strange, ungainly allegory about art, fame, and love on his back and straight upward like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla. King Kong ain’t got shit on him.
“He does sort of look like the original man,” observed a character in Season 1 of Girls, speaking on Driver’s Adam Sackler. The remark drew an early bead on the actor’s borderline-primordial appeal. You can’t talk about Driver’s acting without commenting on his angular handsomeness, sculptural torso, and hyper-articulate body language; between Annette’s much-discoursed sequence of Henry singing while performing cunnilingus on Cotillard’s Ann and the internet’s unsureness of what to think about Driver as a centaur in Burberry’s infinitely memeable Hero fragrance campaign, the actor has achieved the kind of thespian thirst-trap status previously reserved for actors like Brad Pitt, whom he has hawked watches with in Dubai.
At the end of his 30s, Pitt was still striving to downplay his Thelma & Louise dreamboat status and clinging to David Fincher as his go-to auteur. Not yet 40, Driver has worked with arguably more great directors than Pitt (or any other contemporary American actor), including Clint Eastwood, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, and Carax. The latter, who copped a Best Director prize at Cannes, represents the sort of willfully marginal, idea-driven cinematic practitioner that an actor with a Death Star’s worth of Star Wars money can take a gamble on, albeit with strings attached. Despite all the half-naked posing Driver does in Annette, his producer credit is the biggest flex of all. “I only found out that [Driver was a producer] when we did the credits,” Carax told Indiewire. “Obviously, it’s important to him. I know he has powers and he used them to help the film. But we don’t talk about that.”
Movies like Annette don’t get made easily, and the grinning whimsy of Sparks’ songs—circular, recursive jingles that parody and exalt operatic grandiosity—belies the rich, dark core of sadness mined by the director and his stars. As a satire of show biz in which a child prodigy takes on messianic qualities, Annette deliberately recalls the cult-of-personality themes in the Who’s more melodic rock opera Tommy, but the overarching narrative of a man simultaneously alienated and humbled by his paternal responsibilities contains an element of cryptic autobiography—it’s more personal than pastiche. In the opening scene, Carax appears on screen with his daughter Nastya, whose mother, the actress Yekaterina Golubeva, died under mysterious circumstances in 2011 (an event obliquely and devastatingly referenced in the movie’s story line). Carax’s choice to have the title character almost entirely portrayed by a wooden doll generates a painful subtext about Henry’s inability to see his kid’s humanity as he tries to exploit her otherworldly gifts.
A self-made antihero who takes sullen joy rides on a jet-black motorcycle, Henry begins the movie as a mercurial performer but eventually takes on the mantle of producer, stage-managing Annette’s burgeoning career under the pretense of providing for her future. In truth, he’s trying to head off his own artistic obsolescence and sublimate his guilt over the terrible accident that kicks the movie’s plot into gear around the midpoint (this being an opera, you know somebody is going to die). By the final act, Henry’s status as a pop-cultural truth-teller is subsumed by a pathological dishonesty; he’s rotting away from the inside while growing even more flamboyant in the public eye. In keeping with the theme of self-reflexivity, Driver becomes a physical dead ringer for Carax, staring out at the world behind dark sunglasses and a pencil-thin mustache—a walking parody of the tortured, virtuoso male artiste archetype.
On Girls, Driver’s pent-up potency existed in counterpoint to Lena Dunham’s frail, endlessly verbalized neurosis; he was like the show’s secret weapon, used sparingly, especially in the early seasons. In the decade since, he’s become a real movie star, but Annette is the first time he’s been used as a matinee idol: shades of Pitt in Fight Club, right down to the millennial-guru contours of the role. Bulky and bulbous beneath his clothes—and shirtless in many of the “Ape of God” scenes, which are shot largely in long, prowling takes—the actor towers over Cotillard and Simon Helberg, whose seemingly minor piano-man character ends up turning a story of star-crossed lovers into a jagged triangle. In the process, Driver achieves a similar degree of alpha-male intensity as Robert De Niro in Raging Bull—one of many classics evoked through Carax’s endlessly allusive visual storytelling. And like De Niro in his signature, Oscar-winning role, he manages to make animal magnetism itself grotesque.
Reviewing Annette for Time, Stephanie Zacharek suggested that there was something perverse about Driver playing against his own natural charisma: “He’s never been so believably unlikable,” she wrote, “which is certainly an achievement, if it’s the kind of thing you want to see.” In his early film roles, Driver’s likability had a disarming, second-nature casualness—the opposite of movie-star ingratiation. Given his role on Girls, Driver made perfect sense as a weirdo romantic foil for Greta Gerwig’s scatterbrain in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, but he’s even richer—and more memorable—in the Canadian comedy What If? (a.k.a. The F Word), where he takes a standard-issue best-friend-to-the-hero part and propels it into the stratosphere. “I just had sex and I’m about to eat nachos,” he crows at Daniel Radcliffe, selling the idea that this may indeed be the best moment of his life and making the idea seem sweetly triumphant instead of pathetic. Driver finds a way to make intensity itself endearing.
Driver’s ability to make it seem like his lines are exploding from out of nowhere also informs his brilliant extended cameo in Inside Llewyn Davis; as the aspiring Jewish musician Al Cody (actually one Arthur Milgram, cultivating a less conspicuously ethnic cowboy-folkie persona) he’s heard before he’s seen, performing bizarro vocal warm-ups before sitting in on a recording of the (semi-authentic) astronaut novelty song “Please, Mr. Kennedy.” Driver’s booming delivery of the lyrics (“outer … space!”) serve as the high-decibel comic highlight of a movie made largely in a minor key, but there’s also genuine melancholy in his presence; ever fond of doubles and doppelgängers, the Coens make Al/Arthur a mirror of Oscar Isaac’s addled, Sisyphean guitar-slinger—another aspiring singer-songwriter doomed to the footnote section of musical history. “It’s … a dump,” Al admits to Llewyn of his Greenwich Village apartment, recognizing a fellow striver’s fatigue at keeping up appearances; it’s a small part but it lingers in memory.
Wayward hipsters are right in Driver’s wheelhouse. Reuniting with Baumbach for 2014’s While We’re Young, he etched a memorable avatar of millennial narcissism opposite Ben Stiller’s embittered Gen X survivor; on some level, the film felt like a passing of the torch from one unconventional comic leading man to another. The release one year later of The Force Awakens made Driver (or at least Kylo Ren) into a household name, and across three nu–Star Wars movies, he’s done an admirable job of not phoning it in. After mostly hiding behind a mask in Episode VII—a clear attempt to brand him as a new Darth Vader—Driver opened The Last Jedi by smashing his headgear to bits. He stalked through the movie as the scarred, sweaty face of beta-male fragility. In a franchise defined by fan service, Driver’s nervy line readings still felt impulsive and spontaneous; when Kylo screams at an Imperial gunner targeting the Millennium Falcon to “blow that piece of junk out of the sky!” it’s a great moment because it imbues a blockbuster action climax with the vibes of a temper tantrum.
In 2016, Driver starred for Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch, projecting palpable anguish as a doomed Portuguese Jesuit in Silence and easing into the role of a would-be poet in Paterson. Both performances have a monkish, metaphysical stillness, which is more literal in Silence’s cautionary tale of devout missionaries being converted away from the church against their will but more beguiling in Paterson, which is as gentle and poetic as any American movie of the decade. Playing a would-be writer drawing on his suburban New Jersey surroundings for inspiration, Driver is mesmerizingly attentive; the conceptual joke is that the character has the same name as his hometown, making him a product of his environment, as well as its most affectionate chronicler. The self-effacement Driver manages in Paterson shouldn’t be possible for such a distinctive-looking and sounding actor; without any of the straining or posturing that marks his trademark roles, he focuses his concentration so finely that we seem to see the world through his eyes; he becomes a lens for Jarmusch’s wry, deceptively transcendent perceptions of everyday life.
It’s possible to see Driver’s first Oscar nomination in 2019 for BlacKkKlansman as a gesture toward his body of work; as funny as he is as a Jewish undercover cop serving as a front for his African American partner, the role doesn’t do much more than serve the movie’s central (fact-based) joke about racial identity as a skin-deep proposition. But in Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Driver’s Best Actor nod felt richly deserved, and his performance is considerably more complex than Joaquin Phoenix’s rictus-grinning shtick in Joker (although if we’re redistributing Oscars that year, I’d give it to Antonio Banderas in a photo finish). What makes Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical account of a custody battle from hell work is Driver’s ability to suggest internalized feelings; while publicly acclaimed as a creative genius (and with a MacArthur grant to match), his playwright character Charlie can’t ever seem to express himself clearly, whether in a legal setting, or over the phone, or in person with his (soon-to-be-ex) wife.
More than any of Baumbach’s other characteristically scabrous comedies, Marriage Story draws a plausible equation between hate and love—that true hatefulness can be a byproduct of love, and that the desire to hurt another person is often an admission of self-disgust. Driver is at his best when he makes us feel his rage at himself, as in the emotionally cataclysmic, drywall-cracking fight that serves as the movie’s emotional centerpiece, or the equally harrowing (and hilarious) passage in which Charlie tries to conceal a gushing flesh wound from a visiting social worker—an obvious but still affecting metaphor for somebody unwilling to share their pain. The physical comedy here is exquisite, with Charlie hovering over a blasting kitchen faucet, Band-Aid in hand as blood spatters the sink like a crime scene; when his young son passes through en route to the fridge, Driver rolls over into the fetal position to spare the kid the trauma of seeing his dad nearly bleed out, but also as if to gather his agony close and hoard it.
It’s possible to take issue with Marriage Story as a His-and-Hers melodrama that’s more interested (and sympathetic) to Him, or to call out Baumbach’s pathological fascination with bourgie cruelty, but Driver is above reproach. The film ends with Charlie singing Stephen Sondheim’s ’70s Broadway standard “Being Alive,” a song about the relationship between agony and vitality (“Someone to hold you too close / Someone to hurt you too deep”). At first, Driver’s small-voiced singing has a sarcastic quality, and his clipped, precise pronunciation is like an affectionate dig at his own theater-kid origins—a little bit of wine-bar karaoke for the hell of it. As the song continues, though, we can see that he’s transported by it, and the imperfection of his belting is not only realistic but limns the difference between musical theater—with its heightened, utopian version of reality—and the behind-the-scenes experiences that go into its creation.
Besides serving as Marriage Story’s cathartic climax, “Being Alive” anticipates the musicality of Annette, which, other than the Ape of God scenes, is almost fully sung-through. Driver not only has to modulate Henry’s descent into evil in a way that keeps us invested, he has to do it on beat and on key. He doesn’t falter, and in the final duet—which happens to boast the movie’s most undeniable melody—he digs even deeper than Marriage Story; instead of tentatively inhabiting a Broadway standard, he takes an off-kilter original and makes it his own. The film’s closing tableau is of a man who’s backed himself into a dark corner, with nobody to talk to and, as the final lyrics suggest, nothing to love. “Stop watching me,” Driver mutters, signaling the movie’s end with a heartfelt but impossible request—as if we could ever take our eyes off of him.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.