Brian Dennehy, who passed away on April 15, began his commanding presence and prolific acting career at the age of 39. Over four decades he accumulated 139 credits in film and television. In his later years, the actor won Tony Awards for his performances in classic dramas Long Day’s Journey into Night and Death of Salesman. In one of his final films, Driveways, he plays Del, a retired octogenarian Korean war veteran. In this role, he is a man of few words: gone is the bluster of Sheriff Will Teasle in First Blood and the furtive angst of Salesman’s Willy Loman. By turning Del’s conflicts and regrets inward, Dennehy fashions a subtle and heartbreaking performance that is among his best.
Directed by Andrew Ahn, Driveways is about a young single mother, Kathy, played by Hong Chau (Downsizing), who arrives with her eight-year-old son to clean out her late sister’s house, which is next door to Del’s. As her son, Cody, Lucas Jaye turns in a wonderfully natural performance. The boy is bright but shy; he prefers the companionship of manga and video games to the roughhousing of neighborhood kids. All three feel as if they are outsiders in a small suburban community. Kathy, a single Asian mom, knew little about her sister; she is surprised to discover she was a hoarder. Kathy is strict with her son but, without a father around and with a house to clear out and sell, her hands are full. Del, on the other side of their driveway, often sits quietly on his front porch, lost in his own thoughts, impassively observing his neighbor’s difficulties. His only regular companions are a few old friends (including the venerable 90-year-old actor Jerry Adler), who gather at the local vets Bingo Hall.
It’s a simple and formulaic premise: a boy with a single mom and an old widower become soulmates. But Ahn’s gentle direction, a capable script by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen (Mozart in the Jungle), strong performances by Chau and Jaye, and a master class in acting by Dennehy work wonders — the film transcends cliché. Ahn, a Korean American filmmaker born in Los Angeles, understands that chemistry between the actors is essential. Each character recognizes in the others an unexpressed disquiet. In an interview, Ahn says he was drawn to the script because of how its honest story moves along so easily, encouraging relationships to deepen. He cites John Cho’s, Columbus (2017) as one of his favorite films — admiring its subtle characterizations and attention to location details. Along with the casting of the two leads, Driveways exudes an Asian sensibility, particularly in its embrace of tenderness and lack of melodrama.
Dennehy’s performance focuses on crafting nuances in Del’s behavior to provide insight into the figure’s psychological struggles. The music occasionally becomes too manipulative, but the bracing directness of the actors cuts against sentimentality. Dennehy’s linebacker girth is set against Del’s way of wistfully gazing at life. There are scenes in which he remains pretty much still — yet he is enormously moving because of how deftly he projects the character’s intelligence, fortitude, and kindness. Often the camera just focuses on his eyes. In one singular example, Del lies alone in bed at night. The camera starts off studying his powerful aged hands and then cuts to his face, which stares upward. The scene’s profound stillness — accented by the slight gleam in Dennehy’s eyes, supplies a rich emotional experience, an intimation of an intimation of mortality. Often, Dennehy’s attention seems to be in two places at once: he concentrates on something in the present, yet his eyes drift off into the past. Del has a personal movie running inside his head. We are not afforded access to his memories, yet we are compelled to speculate on their pain and beauty.
Dennehy’s finest moment is his handling of Del’s final monologue with young Cody, as he sits on the boy’s front steps. It is among the best “fatherly” speeches in recent films: it is up there with Josh Hamilton’s affirmatory sentiments to Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade and Michael Stuhlbarg’s moving confession to Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. As Cody listens to Del’s words of wisdom, which the boy will hold close for a lifetime, Dennehy moves with minimal grace and maximal emotional power from storyteller to father and then to confessor. Reflection and regret, yes, but there is also the resolve that comes with the courage of age. It is a stunning scene, the revelation of the soul of a man, a talk that invites us to see not only ourselves, but our parents and grandparents. It is a brilliant culminating grace note from a great actor.