Adam Driver: The neurotic, twitchy, deeply uncomfortable genius of a very modern movie star

In spite of my never having seen a recent Star Wars film, I must confess that my absolute favourite line-reading by two-time Academy Award nominee Adam Driver – lest we forget, an idiosyncratic deliverer of lines par excellence across the board – comes from an SNL skit in which he reprises his character from those movies, Kylo Ren. Ren, who I understand to be some kind of gothic space dictator, is appearing on the reality TV series Undercover Boss, and the joke is that the already dubious concept of a corporate fat cat bonding with the very staff he is oppressing is made even more absurd when the titular boss is an intergalactic despot.

Driver – pale, ruby-lipped, and looking like a horrid little prince about to throw a dangerous tantrum – puts his characteristically atypical approach to stress and scansion to extraordinarily good use as he monologues to camera about Ren’s enthusiasm vis-à-vis meeting his underlings. “I’m looking FOR-ward,” he says, twitching subtly in a way that implies he is seconds from exploding, “to having some real TALK… with some real FOLKS.” The dissonance between what he is saying and how he says it is one thing; the dissonance between his hulking body and the ineffectual, petulant anger that is wracking it is funnier still.

Driver’s status as a meme as a result of his much-ballyhooed enormity has at times, I think, led to a mischaracterisation of his appeal as an actor. Yes, it’s true that, as John Oliver once aptly said, he resembles “a f***able redwood”, and it’s also true that when he’s playing sensuous, brutish characters – as he does in, say, Leos Carax’s Annette – some of the charge inherent in his screen presence springs from his unusual combination of macho solidity and feral unpredictability.

It is equally true, however, that in interviews he gives the unmistakeable impression of being totally neurotic, as sweetly ill-suited to performing the role of a prominent celebrity as he is thrillingly adept at acting on the stage or the screen.

An ongoing tendency to characterise Driver in magazine profiles as a throwback capital-M Man, as if he were a Cro-Magnon who had been coincidentally unfrozen halfway through an acting class at Juilliard, is at odds with his evident status as the kind of person to have an apparent panic attack at the sound of his own voice mid-interview on NPR, or to sweat profusely and suck on a cigarette and generally radiate horror during a standing ovation for his latest film at Cannes. “Adam will call me about a movie three movies ago,” his long-term collaborator and friend Noah Baumbach once observed, bewildered, in a video promoting 2019’s Marriage Story, “and say, ‘I think I know now how to do that scene,’ even though as far as I know we can’t go back.” “Adam Driver,” any anxious person might think, watching Driver laugh and then shift uncomfortably in his seat as Baumbach says this, “c’est moi.”

This persistent tension is, above all else, the quality that helps make Driver such a singular performer. At his best, he is not so much a straightforward throwback as a fascinating crystallisation of a near-century of cinematic masculinity, embodying an alembic of familiar actorly characteristics in a way that makes him feel at once contemporary and out of time. He has the stolid physicality of Humphrey Bogart; the nebbishness and syncopated vocal style of James Stewart; the shaggy, lanky sexiness of Elliott Gould; the weirdo intensity of Joaquin Phoenix; the stretched, leonine looks of Donald Sutherland, and so on.

His tendency towards contradiction, seeming both frightened and powerful, masculine and twitchily emasculated, makes him an especially appropriate choice for his most recent film with Baumbach, White Noise, in which he portrays an ageing, death-obsessed professor of “Hitler studies” with the aid of a false hairline and a real and bulbous paunch.

The film’s plot, as one might expect from one adapted from a famously “unfilmable” Don DeLillo novel, sprawls and lurches, and its tonal shifts are not entirely successful: it is by turns a deadpan comedy, a lightweight consumerist satire, a lurid Spielbergian apocalypse movie, and a visual pastiche of the Eighties that – by virtue of resembling something more like Napoleon Dynamite than the actual 1980s – manages to look perversely as if it was made in 2009.

As Jack Gladney, though, Driver is brilliant: fussy, impossibly bulky, at once skilled in his discipline and manically obsessed with his own failures. It takes the viewer a little time to suspend disbelief enough to accept Driver as an older schlub, but it does not take much at all for us to buy him as an academic. It does not require limbering for a stretch for us to take him at face value when we watch him fret about his own mortality, or nervously stumble over the terrible German he can barely get out of his full-lipped mouth.

There is one particularly wonderful moment in a supermarket halfway through White Noise that I turned over repeatedly in my mind after the screening. Gladney has just learnt that a university colleague has died in a surfing accident, and because the man “must have weighed three hundred pounds”, he finds the idea of that death somehow impossible to contemplate. “To be so enormous,” Driver breathes, his diction suggestive of the kind of terrible epiphanic moment that is apt to ruin a life, “then to die.”

When I said that Driver’s Gladney, like the actor who portrays him, “is manically obsessed with his own failures”, it was true largely because there is no greater and more inevitable failure than death. What is anxiety if not the pervasive transfer of this feeling into other parts of life?

Traditionally, movie stars are supposed to instill in us a sense of ease and pleasure, of the possibility of being free from fear. If it is pretentious to suggest that Driver is the rare A-lister to allow the crackling energy of doubt to shine through his public exterior, and that, as a result, he himself is a reminder that one can be so enormous and then die, we were already discussing a new adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel anyway, so where’s the harm in getting existential?

His neuroticism has the power to undermine his solid physicality, or to amplify the feeling that he’s liable to snap, and this electricity is both off-putting and erotic, suggestive of so much life and terror. His characters, even when they are badly behaved space princes or pot-bellied professors living through a possible apocalypse, feel like real folks, offering some all-too-real talk.

‘White Noise’ streams on Netflix from 30 December

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