If you’ve seen HBO’s Lena Dunham-helmed, present-day-Brooklyn dystopia Girls, chances are you were at least somewhat worried about the prospect of Adam Driver starring in The Force Awakens. Driver has been cropping up more and more on the big screen — from his random spot in Spielberg’s Lincoln, to a turn as a rich-boy faux-folk-singer in the Coen Brothers’ underrated Inside Llewyn Davis, to ironically collecting VHSs in Noah Baumbach’s miserable meditation on gentrification, filmmaking, and fedoras While We’re Young. However, it’s still hard to not associate him with the borderline-schizophrenic, weight-lifting, shop-class-obsessed, fixie-riding, erstwhile boyfriend he plays to Dunham’s Hannah Horvath in the HBO comedy, which enters its fifth season this year. His inflections in any character have a bit of Girls — Driver is an actor with a dangerously hyper-specific, if well-thought-out, style.
Driver was tasked with one of the film’s most make-or-break characters: the primary red-saber-wielding villain, which in Star Wars translates to Dude With Funny Mask or Facial Makeup (what up, Maul?). For much of the film, Driver’s Kylo Ren is a gangly masked phantom, wearing a facial apparatus that bridges the samurai-esque headgear of his idol Darth Vader and a gas mask —“a helmet whose elongated nose echoes the shape of his real schnozz beneath,” as Stephanie Zacharek put it in Time. Driver’s high, erratic intonation was tempered by the talkbox of the mask — muffled and pitched down — but for most of the climactic action of the film, his real face is exposed, with a long, jet-black mane of hair flowing like the Sith version of Pete Yorn. The old, more controlled — but no less manic — vocalizations of Adam are once again right in our faces.
Most critics (myself included) found Driver’s performance — even with mask off — to be compelling and emotionally committed. Though the gambit with Han Solo on the bridge of Starkiller Base is a bit too predictable for comfort, Driver manages to convey the mixed emotions and manipulative bait-and-switch he pulls powerfully. He is good in his lumbering lightsaber combat with Rey (Daisy Ridley), and in trying to use Sith mind games on her while she is imprisoned on the First Order’s ship. His burgeoning surprise as he discovers the extent of her powers with the Force is effective.
But Driver’s method-esque techniques are extreme enough to be polarizing — this is clear from just one viewing of the movie, as his Girls bonafides don’t help for any Star Wars fans who have also seen Dunham’s show. Though most major publications lauded Abrams’ film — as of last week, The Wrap identified only ten reviewers who disliked it — and Driver’s performance along with it, there were those who were less than kind to him.
The most knee-jerk (and hilarious) excoriation came from Colorado’s 9News, who dubs Driver’s Kylo Ren “Darth Millennial’ and harps on his performance and spoiledness for most of the review.
“Sure, Kylo Ren gets some bad-guy street cred early on when he orders a whole town of innocents killed. But as the film wears on, we start to see an uninteresting whiner lives behind that dark samurai veneer…. In the original trilogy, Kylo’s grandfather Darth Vader lets us see beneath his mask exactly twice (not counting Luke’s vision during his swampy Jedi training)…but Kylo is way too hip for his grandpa’s mask-stays-on protocol.”
CNET-er Oscar Guiterrez also gave voice to the inevitable contingent that would have preferred that Driver kept his mask on, or at least made the reveal a little more surprising. NOTE: Yes, nerds, he does get wrong the fact that Ren is not actually a Sith, just a Vader-wannabe-in-training who hangs with Dark Side guru Supreme Leader Snoke, or as I like to call him, “Giant Palpa-gollum Prometheus-Style Guy.”
“I think [Kylo Ren] is one of the worst Sith in the Star Wars saga. Without the mask, he doesn’t give a ‘bad boy’ look — he looks like some teenager Star Wars fanboy. When he removed the mask, I hoped there would be some scars (you know, evidence that war and combat leaves), like his grandfather has.”
Movie Nation got harsher in panning the earnest zealousness of Driver’s performance, and betrays the fact that Girls is definitely getting in his way, the way Titanic once did for DiCaprio:
“Kylo Ren [is] a black-helmeted brute who throws hilarious tantrums, shorting out all manner of electronics with his Crusader broadsword lightsaber. Adam Driver is Hayden Christensen reborn, in essence, a somewhat amusing menace with the helmet on, that tall, skinny, curly-headed funnyman from Girls and This is Where I Leave You with the helmet off. Miscast.
His best line? ‘We’re not done here.’ Kind of lacks…something.”
The indomitable hot-talkers at Salon, in a review focusing solely on the “We’ve seen this movie” angle, allow that Driver is putting his all into the performance, while bemoaning what a beta-ass villain Ren is as if it’s not part of the point.
”Darth Vader has a copycat heir named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, resisting shtick), who keeps his master’s melted helmet around and wears one of his own just to look cool. (He doesn’t need it to breathe, at any rate.)”
Both of these reviewers were subsequently interviewed about the amount of hate mail they received for being the first two high profile reviewers to pan the film.
Without even dipping into the comments sections, you can doubtless imagine that plenty of standard ol’ non-content-churning fans struggled with Driver too. Take the 42-year-old Wars-head dressed as Chewie on opening night interviewed by The Daily Beast, who protested that overacting in The Force Awakens — “Kylo Ren, specifically” — only exaggerated how unadventurous and derivative of the original trilogy the film was.
The Driver critiques mostly just highlight why the young actor’s performance is so important to the film. Where most elements of The Force Awakens are just short of deathly safe — squeezing to the light side by virtue of its streamlined polish and overall restraint — Driver’s Ren is a slightly jagged puzzle piece. His capricious performance verges on outright daring, and jumps almost uncomfortably off the screen. Standing out in a movie like this — and being able to make it his own — is the trademark of an effective performance, and an important counterweight for Abrams’ film. It’s also a first major step toward Driver becoming regarded as a serious and versatile film actor.