Adam Driver, Annette, Leos Carax
Photo: Amazon Studios

Adam Driver’s 5 Best Film Performances

Adam Driver’s transforming, lizard-like qualities make him the modern paradigm of versatility in acting. These five films capture his best performances so far.

Adam Driver is among the most celebrated actors of his generation. He stands out from the others mostly because of his lizard-like qualities, allowing him to seemingly transform internally and externally in his work. His roles range from the vile antagonist Kylo Ren in the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy(2015-2019) to the neurotic Professor Jack Gladney in Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise (2022) and the scrawny Jesuit priest Garupe in Martin Scorsese’s 2016 historical drama Silence, a profound contemplation on the concept of faith.

Indeed, Driver is considered to be the modern paradigm of versatility in acting, while his non-Hollywood conforming facial features further enable him to portray divergent roles with skill. He has been nominated for two Academy Awards: 1. Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in the 2019 Spike Lee dramedy BlacKkKlansman and 2. Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for his emotionally multi-layered portrayal of the divorcee theatre director Charlie Barber in Noah Baumbach’s 2020 Marriage Story, a bittersweet pondering on the impact of a breakup between a married couple. Below are Adam Driver’s five most striking appearances on the silver screen so far.

BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee (2018)

Wise folk like to say that “there is no joint like a Spike Lee joint”, and it is true, given his prolific career and his involvement in more than 130 projects as a director since 1979. BlacKkKlansman is a fictional reimagining of true events that transpired in Colorado during the ’70s. The film focuses on the charged dipole between the emerging Black Power Movement and the terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan.

Adam Driver plays Flip Zimmerman, a police officer of Jewish descent who is picked by the top brass as the man to infiltrate the local KKK sect to extract incriminating information. Even though it is John David Washington who appears onscreen for the majority of BlacKkKlansman‘s runtime, Driver steals his thunder by delivering a measured, nuanced performance as a young man who was raised learning that his racial and religious ancestry are inconsequential only to land in an environment where his origins determine if he lives or dies.

Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach (2019)

This is perhaps the film where Adam Driver’s star shined brighter than ever. He nailed the rather complex role of Charlie Barber, a soon-to-be-divorced theatre entrepreneur who counts his wounds after experiencing the acrimony of separation that the couple’s vulture-like lawyers induce. The lawyers are impeccably played by Ray Liotta and Laura Dern, who won an Oscar for her performance.

Driver demonstrates his skillful palette in Marriage Story as Charlie’s mental state fluctuates wildly, driving him to his mental and emotional boundaries. We watch as, in rapid succession, Charlie exhibits signs of narcissistic personality disorder, throwing raging tantrums while talking with his soon-to-be ex-wife. These moments expose his sensitive side in a momentous scene in which he sings an abridged version of “Being There” to express the character’s overwhelming emotions due to the fallout of his divorce. Marriage Story is revered as Noah Baumbach’s magnum opus and the film in which Driver performs a tour de force.

Annette, Leos Carax (2021)

Léos Carax is a unique filmmaker, rumored to be somehow erratic, and this is reflected in his works that, despite being limited in number, have attracted the attention of international audiences. Adam Driver is seductive in Annette, a musical focusing on the turbulent relationship between a couple: stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Driver) and his opera-singing wife Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard). Annette is the name of their daughter.

Cinematically, Annette is a fusion of styles and genres. However, as Dana Stevens remarks in her review of the film for Slate magazine: “Films this original and irreverent are a near-extinct species in the show business ecosystem of 2021. If you sometimes go to the movies to feel unsettled, perplexed, and amused—not to mention get a peek at an often-shirtless and always-brooding Adam Driver—Annette might be the weird one you’ve been waiting for.” The “often-shirtless” Driver sings instead of speaking and attracts the female gaze while depicting his semi-Dostoyevskyan character in a stylized fashion, in one of his most deviant onscreen performances. His chemistry with Cotillard is another winner, and the two of them together constitute the number one reason to watch Annette, even if musicals are not your cup of tea.

House of Gucci, Ridley Scott (2021)

Even though the vast majority of critics and film buffs agree that Marriage Story is the crown jewel in Adam Driver’s filmography so far, some heretics are arguing that his rendition of the role of Maurizio Gucci, inheritor of the namesake fashion dynasty and prospective leader of the enterprise, is so flawless that it may be the American actor’s best performance yet. Once again, Driver is summoned to play an intricate character whose journey from his timid, respectful young self to the ruthless, unloving individual that he becomes as House of Gucci reaches its climax is perhaps the most astonishing arc for the cinematic year 2021.

Even though the competition from the rest of the ensemble cast is tough –Jared Leto makes an Ovidian transformation in the role of Paolo Gucci – with veterans Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons casting their imposing shadows over the youngsters, Driver fulfils his part in the most exemplary way and adds another award-winning performance to his ever-expanding repertoire.

White Noise, Noah Baumbach (2022)

In one of his latest outings, Adam Driver collaborated for the fourth time with his friend, indie-director Noah Baumbach, who took a risk when he decided to adapt into the cinema screen one of the novels that have been long since labelled as simply “unfilmable“. Don De Lillo’s White Noise is one of the American guru author’s most popular works. Published in 1985, it valiantly defied genre classification, as do the majority of De Lillo’s novels, and, among many other things, cauterizes the consumerism as manifested in American society during the ’80s while musing on eternal, ontological questions that torment human minds since time immemorial.

Fear of impending death is the key to unlocking the mysteries of an odd story that develops through seemingly trivial sequences that gain significance if the audience grasps the enormity of the film’s context. Driver plays a Professor of Hitler Studies at University who sees the lives of those closest to him crumble as they confront the certainty of their own demise. A post-apocalyptic airborne event, a drug that cures the fear of death, and eccentric dialogue complete the picture of an idiosyncratic film that requires multiple re-watches and interpretations. Driver as Jack is the definition of the ordinary American family man. The character’s bulging waist and receding hairline seem to taunt Driver, whose physicality has been much debated, not least because of his involvement in the Burberry ads where he posed naked, his body chiseled like a Greek statue.

Additional Resource

Han, Karen. “A Guide to Annette for People Who Just Thirst After Adam Driver”. Slate Magazine. 19 August 2021.