Starring: Frank Grillo, Garret Dillahunt, Caitlin Carmichael & Shea Whigham
Directed by: Jeremy Rush
Distributed by: Netflix
Release Date: October 2017
Running Time: 82 mins
Synopsis: A getaway driver is double-crossed during a bank robbery, and it goes wrong. With his family on the line, he races to find out who betrayed him before time runs out.
Released a few months after Baby Driver, Wheelman is another film about a getaway driver that relies on unconventional and experimental storytelling. While Edgar Wright’s music-inspired cinematography gave Baby Driver a timeless and romantic feel, Jeremy Rush restricts his narrative to the central vehicle with the camera rarely moving away from inside or directly outside of the vehicle. From the moment the film starts, the viewer is forced into the role of an unwilling participant in the heist with our point-of-view locked to the Wheelman’s car, either looking inwards at the inhabitants or outwards at the city streets. As the bank heist begins to unravel and the Wheelman has to improvise, we as the audience feel as clueless and desperate as he does; where most films would cut away to action and exposition in other locations, we remain trapped in the car and finding out the film’s twists at the same time as the protagonist.
Frank Grillo adopts the anonymous moniker that also serves as the film’s title; a decision that rankles with his accomplices as they head towards the bank heist. Although before the film can settle into the familiar tropes of a heist movie, the narrative is disrupted by a suspicious phone call and chaos ensues. Grillo does a fantastic job in the lead role, imbuing the Wheelman with the right mix of hostility and vulnerability for his situation, with each subsequent phone call chipping away at his calm façade. Despite the additional acting challenges of having the camera centered on his face for most of the film whilst he acts against disembodied voices on the other end of a phone, Grillo rises the occasion and delivers a flawless performance. After seeing him in Boss Level, I was instantly won over by his likeability and charm as a leading man, and that same charisma is in play here. He might not be as renowned as his action hero counterparts, but he can definitely deliver some top-notch (and layered) lead performances.
As bold and dynamic the film’s unique ‘single location’ camerawork is, it is a technique that has been seen in other thrillers such as Buried, Phonebooth and Locke, and it proves just as effective in intensifying the tension here. The series of telephone calls that drive the narrative forward are incredibly engaging and Rush’s script (and directorial influence) ensures that they never feel like excessive exposition. There is a strong sense of momentum to the film as events begin to sour, and the terse conversations held over the mobile phone become more and more sinister. The brief flashes of action are kept realistic and to a minimum, almost intruding upon the main focus of the film from outside the car. Rush avoids the typical clichés of bullet-ridden car chases in favour of a more subdued approach which further heightens the pressure for the viewers along for the ride.
With a tight 82-mins runtime and the majority of the movie set around or within the confines of a car, Wheelman is able to evoke a sense of claustrophobia in a way that most films are unable to achieve. Traditional film-making has conditioned viewers to expect a change in location or camera POV to create a sense of omnipotence and distance from the events, but it never comes and that makes us uneasy as an audience. The twists and turns of the plot certainly help to keep the viewer on their toes, but it is in its rigid and uncompromising cinematography where Wheelman truly stands out from the crowd. Another interesting side-note, the film currently holds the record for the most instances of the word “fuck” used in a narrative film (286, in total) so be prepared for a lot of bad language!
Score – ★★★★
Wheelman is available to stream on Netflix.