The best sight gag in The Dead Don't Die, which is currently in theaters, is when Adam Driver shows up driving a smart car, folded up into his compact two-seater like a creaky Murphy bed. Watching one Adam Driver getting out of a smart car is as funny as watching two dozen circus clowns getting out of a Volkswagen Beetle. There's no other way to read his choice of car than as a way of overcompensating for a surfeit, rather than a deficit, of masculinity. It's an apology: Sorry for taking up so much space. It's not my fault being the biggest and the strongest—I don't even exercise.
If you Google "Adam Driver height"—as many of you surely have—you will see that the actor is 6' 2"—shorter than Elizabeth Debicki, but Driver is not merely, incidentally tall, like Debicki sometimes must seem to be, or even like the 6' 4" Jeff Goldblum (though Goldblum does sometimes play tall, like in The Fly, or, I assume, The Tall Guy, one does not come away from Jurassic Park particularly overwhelmed by his stature).
Driver is on Broadway right now in a revival of the 1987 play Burn This, and it is not because he is almost as tall as Debicki that, early in the play's run, The Cut ran a piece—written by four authors—called "How Big Is Adam Driver in Burn This?" The answer, as it turns out, is: very big. ("Adam isn't so much the giant in 'Jack and the Beanstalk' as the dang beanstalk itself. Reaching skyward, sturdy enough to climb.")
But that does not exhaust the subject. If the way Driver used his body in his performances existed solely to seed viral thirst posts, then, y'know, dayenu—but in that case, he would have nothing to apologize for, no reason to scrunch his legs up like that in a car that's too small for him. Adam Driver is nobody's Large Adult Son, nobody's Beautiful Enormous Meme Boyfriend. In his film and stage work, we see a physically powerful male body in constant negotiation with its own potential to overpower a person—and to captivate or alienate an audience. The Dead Don't Die is about a zombie apocalypse, and when the end of the world comes, when the undead rise, the smart car driver of the early scenes begins to unfold. He becomes uninhibited and grows into a body capable of doing real violence.
In Burn This, which you can see in New York City through July 14, Driver plays a New Jersey restaurant manager who blows into Keri Russell's life on a tide of grief and cocaine and his own uncontrollable impulses. She's a dancer, a bit fragile and a bit of a snob; he's her dead gay dance partner's estranged brother, just some inarticulate jabroni from the boonies, who hates the city and doesn't understand art. But, his need is so naked, his hungers so intense—his normal body temperature is literally hotter than hers, or yours or mine—that he seems an artist somehow, with no medium but life. He inspires Russell's character even as the immensity of his passions freaks her out. He bursts through the door of her Manhattan loft at the start of the second scene—a star's entrance—and blows her life right off its hinges.
The locally ubiquitous ad campaign for the play is notoriously, iconically steamy, but onstage, Driver and Russell's chemistry is a much odder thing, and he appears a much unlikelier heartthrob. His hair, grown out to nearly shoulder length, is midnight black and slick—it looks heavy—and his dark, shiny '80s suits billow even on his wide midsection. His hands are swollen and his gestures sweeping; his nose is like a Muppet's. At one point, he wears one of Russell's robes, though "wears" may be a stretch. I've seen this play before, in 2002, with Edward Norton, who played the character as a self-sabotaging genius, pinched and hyperarticulate in his speech and precise in the way he paced across the set, like he was attacking it. Driver's voice is deep down in his diaphragm, a subwoofer rumble fuzzed up with a broad Jersey accent; he doesn't riff—he rants, he hollers. He wanders across the stage like he doesn't know where it is, but occupies entire quadrants of it at a time, blown this way and that across it like a huge dark sail, or a rogue planet. Russell's character responds to his lusts and takes them as a challenge to be big too, to be bolder in the way she lives and creates. She can't shake him; she is drawn to him all the more when he refuses to leave her apartment, or comes to blows with her boyfriend—as many people have for many men in the past, she perceives his weakness in the face of his own destructiveness, and pities him. The bull in the china shop is scared—he's never been in a china shop before.
Photo by Mary Cybulsky/Window Frame Films
In Paterson, his previous collaboration with The Dead Don't Die filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Driver reigned in that destructiveness, sublimated it into daily rituals. The film follows a bus driver-poet through a typical, unvarying week: Paterson wakes a few minutes before his alarm; he walks, lunchpail in hand, to the garage; he drives his bus through working-class Paterson, New Jersey, thinking of his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and of his verses; he eats his lunch in the park by the waterfall, where he scribbles a few lines. At night, he walks his bulldog to the local bar, where he sits, nursing a drink, one of the regulars. Jarmusch has refined his style to a sort of Zen-inflected hipster deadpan—exemplified, for instance, in his dry hip-hop hitman comedy Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai—and so many viewers saw in Paterson an idealized portrait of a blue-collar artist and everyday philosopher, rather than what the movie actually is, which is a study of a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress and reassuring himself with the swaddling certainties of routine. On Paterson's bedside table is a picture of him as a young Marine, as Driver indeed was before a medical discharge sent him to Julliard. His big ears are splayed out from under his dress cap; it's the face of a skinny kid who's not yet filled out.
Now, Driver is big in a way that suggests functional strength and a retrograde paleo-masculine disinterest in eating healthy or doing pointless, vain cardio; look at the Ben Swolo meme, and you'll see big, functional muscles underneath a torso thickened like a grown-ass man's. As Paterson, though, his broad back curls over itself like a wave about to crest when he hunches over his notebook, the wheel of his bus, his mug of beer, making himself a smaller target—he looks so solicitous, a human question mark.
Paterson's wife Laura is zany, with a purpose—she makes cupcakes, which she decorates, like the rest of the house, in whimsical black-and-white patterns. She teases Paterson, gently, about his enormous feet, just enough to bring him out of his own head a little, but not so much that he won't feel safe. When she says his unpublished, handwritten poems should "belong to the world," he repeats her words back to her, his low voice constrained: "The world? Well, now you're trying to scare me." He moves through his day not calmly but cautiously, his eyes flicking around, his face breaking into genuine relief when someone makes a joke and relieves the tension that he carries everywhere in his slow steps. When his routine is disrupted, as when his bus breaks down and strands him on the side of the road, he vibrates with tension, his brain and body going out of sync: his mind races as his motions go vague, or his head gets foggy when his movements get sudden. When a friend from the bar brandishes a gun—an Airsoft, but how is Paterson to know?—he finally cuts loose. Paterson drops him instantly, disarms him and pins him down in a single continuous sequence, a blur of reflexes, and then takes forever to come down, talking a mile a minute, lost in his own muscle memory.
There's a ghost of that Paterson bar scene right at the beginning of The Dead Don't Die. Driver and Bill Murray play Officer Ronnie Peterson and Chief Cliff Robertson, police officers in a dozy burg called Centerville ("A Real Nice Place"), and the first time we meet them, they're responding to a nuisance call about the local eccentric Hermit Bob (Tom Waits). They're in the woods, and know Hermit Bob is hiding somewhere in the shadows. Ronnie is clenched, Cliff is relaxed in his perfect smug-casual Bill Murray manner; when Hermit Bob fires a warning shot over their heads, Driver levels and racks his shotgun, showing off that Marine training—you can see all Ronnie's excess jumpy energy channeled into brutally efficient weapon handling, before he second-guesses himself, before enough of Bill Murray's chill rubs off on him that he stands down. Jarmusch favors actors who are efficient in how they broadcast their personalities, but within Driver's and Murray's shared slowed-down voices and poky bemused register, there's a noticeable difference between Ronnie, who's raring to go, eager to do more cop stuff, and Cliff, who never wants to raise the temperature.
Photo by Frederick Elmes / Focus Features
But the temperature is rising: In the film's metaphor for catastrophic climate change, "polar fracking" has thrown off the earth's rotation, causing night to change to day, and the dead to rise from their graves like the sea rising over the coastline. The stiff the cops are keeping in one of their cells down at their station shuffles out from behind bars, and Ronnie beheads it (her?), taking several swings with a machete. They were "good cuts," Cliff says afterward, impressed, and they really were: The way Driver rotates his hips to leverage his lower body and get his trunk behind the swing, the way he makes contact with his arms at full extension, the ropy muscles of his huge forearms totally engaged—if he was swinging at a baseball, instead of at a neck, you'd say he barreled it up.
But it is a neck, even if it's a zombie neck. Later, at the town's motel, Ronnie has the chance to swing at a few more necks. Some hipsters who were passing through Centerville have, it transpires, been eaten, and he decapitates them before they can return as zombies. His fellow officer, Chloë Sevigny, is squeamish: Does he really have to do this? He does, but she provides a humanizing counterweight—a recognition that this work really is dirty, is brutal and disgusting. There's dignity and compassion in being softhearted around violent death; when Driver holds up a young woman's severed head by the ponytail, as rendered in bad CGI, it's goofy, but it's nevertheless awful, and hard to feel nothing about it. Sevigny's response is a challenge to Ronnie, that he not have too much fun calling his body into action for What A Man's Got to Do—but so rarely gets to do, these days, when cultural attention has shifted away from masculine physical impulses, and onto the places where it makes its impact. But look, that body on the bed isn't real, right?
Talking to The Dead Don't Die star about, well, everything
Driver's voice maintains a stoic evenness, but his body knows better. This is what it's for—for drawing the machete over his head while he stands over a dead body like a man about to Test His Strength at a fairground, his legs spread, his chest huge as his lungs fill with air. I bet he rang the bell.
At one point, the three police officers are drying through Centerville when Ronnie has an idea. Driver rolls down the window, sticks his head out like a labrador, and takes a tight, grunting, inside-out swing at a zombie head. He sits back down in his seat, still fizzy with adrenaline. The dormant killing machine of Paterson has woken himself up; the hot mess of Burn This has gotten the blaze under control.
In the graveyard, as the zombies swarm their squad car, Ronnie repeats to Cliff one last time the line he's recited like a refrain throughout the movie: "This isn't going to end well." This, for Jarmusch, is a generational thing, a millennial telling an in-denial Boomer that, actually, everything's not okay, will never be okay again. But it's not exactly fatalism when Ronnie decides to "go down swinging"—even swinging at zombies who were once his closest friends. Driver becomes a dervish of violence, graceful as he meets the invasion the only way he knows how, living out the fantasy of anyone who's ever stockpiled firearms, stayed up gaming for 24 hours straight, or declared that there are only two genders and one way to be each of them, until he is swamped and overcome, like Davy Crockett at the Alamo (the Disney or John Wayne version—not the real version). He dies with a weapon in his hand—he dies like a man. Congratulations!