If you’ve got some time this Thanksgiving weekend and you’re not interested in participating in the gross consumer-capitalist feeding frenzy that takes place on the following Friday, then maybe give Netflix’s Wheelman a shot. Surely you’re still using your ex’s dad’s wife’s login, right?
I myself finally got a chance to sit down and watch Wheelman recently and I’m still thinking about it. Not about the plot, mind you, because the plot isn’t terribly complicated: the Wheelman (Frank Grillo) is finally out after a three-year stint in prison and he’s trying to pay off his debts by working with mobsters.
One night, while he’s out acting as the getaway driver for some robbers, he gets a phone call from an unknown number telling him to deliver the money somewhere else instead. Realizing that he’s been double-crossed, the Wheelman spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out who is on his side, all while protect his family at the same time.
Warning! Spoilers ahead.
With Wheelman, the delights are in the details. The black BMW—definitely an E46-generation 3 Series sedan but tough to say which—he uses as his getaway car sounds wonderful, the rasp of its engine note captured beautifully throughout the film. It has a tasteful, aftermarket steering wheel and there are gratuitous shots of the Wheelman gunning his car around corners. Later on, he’s seen driving a lovely 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera RS. All in all, the cars are Good.
But, truth be told, you don’t actually see the cars very much, if at all. The film’s style—its most significant trait—has you rarely leaving the inside of the car. I think I counted about only four or five shots where the camera is positioned outside of the car.
For an overwhelming majority of the film, first-time director Jeremy Rush either puts the camera (a proxy for you) in the back seat or has it watching the Wheelman’s face closely as he shouts profanity into his cell phone at the people double-crossing him. Sometimes it’s stuck on the side-window, facing in. And other times it’s mounted pointing down, on the trunk, so you can see what the Wheelman is doing there.
And with a perpetually shallow depth of field and a rainy evening, the feel of the movie swings between cozy and claustrophobic. Cozy when the Wheelman is driving slowly along the wet streets, trying to figure out what to do next and you’re in the passenger seat next to him. Claustrophobic when you’re waiting for him in the back seat and he comes busting out of the backdoor to a bar, waving a gun and shoving his friend into the now-vacant passenger seat.
The style was captivating at first. It gives the movie an airless feel, like you’re always too close to the characters when they’re yelling (there’s a lot of yelling) and you are trapped, sitting inches away from their faces.
But an hour into the movie, I started checking my watch, wondering when I’d be able to leave the goddamn car. Turns out, I never got to, except when it was time to switch cars. This might be obvious to you, but when you’re watching an exciting car chase scene, you kind of what to see what the cars are doing from the outside. How they move with relevance to their surroundings is what makes chase scenes interesting. Interior shots of steering wheel yanking and handbrake-grabbing only do so much.
My frustration at being penned in also extended to feeling highly irritated at the Wheelman’s situation. He goes through much of the movie without knowing who is pulling his strings and who is responsible for threatening his family. You can feel his anger. His desperation. Grillo’s performance is excellent and visceral.
All of the dialogue takes place through increasingly infuriating phone calls, going in circles with which mobster wants what. The film is only 82 minutes long, but it grabs you and holds on tightly for those 82 minutes. It’s like watching a real-life situation unfold because, unlike most other movies, Wheelman does nothing to mess with the passage of time.
Your 82 minutes translate directly to the Wheelman’s 82 minutes. The perspective is so third-person limited that your passage of time doesn’t ever differ from his. This makes you so in-tune with everything that’s happened to the Wheelman on this night that by the movie’s end, you feel as emotionally exhausted as he looks. But the good kind. The coming-down-from-exhilaration kind.
You won’t find any fancy CGI in Wheelman or corny jokes. There really aren’t any jokes. It’s not that kind of movie. It has lulling moments, but overall it is a raw and gritty ride. It’s a fun cinematic experiment, even if I really craved some outside shots.
It’s not a long movie. What have you got to lose?