Cars in cinema are more than just props or vehicles that enable a character to get from A to B. They can be used to characterize individuals or groups (Knight Rider, Batman, Ghostbusters). They can be weapons, artifacts charged with criminal energy (action movies, cop movies). They can be means of discovery and a cocoon, a simulation of safety and stability in the incessant reliving of the myth to “go West” (road movies). Get into a car and start driving, and you confront yourself, you confront the wilderness and you may come out a changed person. In the following seven movies we find cars with unusual qualities. They are menacing and irrational, they are refuges or back stages, they are erotic, mythic, and the last remainders of freedom. Once you’ve seen them rolling, it’s hard to forget them.
Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971)
Steven Spielberg’s first, the TV feature Duel has a simple premise with a tremendous pay-off. Business commuter David Mann (Dennis Weaver) leaves L.A. and takes the mountain route home. Underway he crosses paths with a rusty 40-ton tractor-trailer that takes up the pursuit. Why? Because he can. Because Mann responds to his provocation.
What follows are bloodcurdling 80 minutes of tailgating, road-blocking, engine-churning. The movie’s strongest scenes are lessons in building suspense with intense camerawork and focused direction. Shunning dialogue and music, Spielberg showcases a man’s fight with the irrational, the untamed. It’s a negotiation of masculinity and an existentialist tale. But above all it’s an undiluted thriller.
Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)
Ivan Locke is in a BMW X5 on a road that will take him far away from all he once knew: his job, his wife, his home. It’s a one-night drive and a heated situation, yet Locke is no getaway driver. He is a construction foreman on the eve of a crucial job. His crime involved a bottle of wine and another woman and he has to deal with the fallout. Now it’s only him, the BMW, and the voices on the car phone (his family, his co-worker, his boss).
The one-man show by Tom Hardy is an exercise in minimalism, pulled off by the strength of its actor. As Locke’s life crumbles, the movie gains traction. It’s fast paced, yet meditative. We inhabit Locke’s space, yet he is sealed from us behind glass, reflections of millions of lights running across his face. It’s a space at the end of the world. The car as a confession booth, a space in transit, a human being powerless and (seemingly) connected to the world which is just one lane away.
Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)
Someone once said that all a successful movie needs to have is sex, violence and cars but I doubt he was thinking of Cronenberg’s specific combination. There is an erotic and transgressive nature to reckless driving and the Canadian body-horror auteur comes up with a “fetish that, in fact, no one has” (Roger Ebert). A fetish for road accidents.
Crash victim James (James Spader) finds himself drawn to an underground sect of omnisexual fetishists around crash photographer Vaugh (Elias Koteas). They re-enact famous car crashes, they have thick scars and wear leg braces (not unlike harnesses) and have sex in any way or pairing. Their focus is not on the other person but the surrounding, the atmosphere, the presence of a car, if damaged or accelerating, even better. Several car pursuit scenes play out like flirting in a bar, while other scenes have a trance-like quality. You know you shouldn’t do it. But, to hell with it, you will ride this one out, no matter where it takes you, pedal to the floor, hand on someone’s crotch.
Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
At times, a car is your one and only – your ticket to redemption or to hell. Stuck in a little South American town with no job and no way to escape, Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo, Luigi and Bimba sense their luck turning as the sinister Southern Oil Company hires them to drive two trucks full of nitroglycerin for 300 miles to extinguish a massive oil field fire.
When the smallest bump in the road makes a difference between life and death, Clouzot sets up a lengthy examination of friendship, loyalty and survival instinct. Testing our heroes with dirt roads, shaky bridges and treacherous oil pools, he raises the tension to the maximum and puts them through the direst of circumstances. And though Clouzot is no cynic and no misanthrope, he sees things very clearly: fear keeps us alive. Just wait until the final scene.
Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
If the car is a stage, we’re all drivers. Leos Carax’s hell of a ride works because it believes in its powerful narrative wheels. He knows the audience is willing to embrace dream logic if it’s steeped in emotion. Carax’s cars cross a metafictional, self-referential universe with its own perverted rules. Its main player is an actor embodying different roles, a shapeshifter. He meets his own double, gets stabbed, dies, resurrects himself and keeps going, one transformation at a time.
The stretch-limousine that carries Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) is his safe haven, a magic chamber and a backstage. Stars hide behind tinted glass to preserve privacy. What does Mr. Oscar preserve? Is his identity that of the passenger? And what is the identity of the car, and all the other cars in the parking lot? Maybe the human beings are the plot elements in a motorized world.
Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)
“Repo Man looks for tense situations” says Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). These involve: lines of speed, car chases, repossessing unidentified vehicles. Yet this car, a Chevy Malibu, is hard to get a hold of. Its driver may or may not be related to Dr. Frankenstein and carries a radiant green freight in his trunk… But how does it all tie in with punks, aliens and the CIA?
Cox takes every liberty and nothing seriously, from relationships (“I want you to have my kids… it’s the thing to do”) to common decency, human lives and good taste. Driving is dangerous. Best to follow this enlightened sidekick: “I do all my thinking on the bus. I don’t wanna learn how to drive. The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”
Vanishing Point (Richard Sarafian, 1971)
If the USA is a car-country, the American West is its Holy Land. Nobody understood this better than Richard Sarafian’s “last American hero” for whom “speed is freedom” and the question is not “when he will stop but who will stop him.” Meet ex-race car driver Kowalski (Barry Newman), who needs to deliver a white Dodge Challenger from Denver, CO to San Francisco, CA. To spice things up, he makes a bet to get to the coast in little more than 15 hours, starting a four-state manhunt on his way.
With the support of a blind black radio DJ and the help of hippies and snake charmers he meets on his way, Kowalski the road martyr only slows down when he chooses to. Stripped of unnecessary dialogue and psychologizing, Sarafian’s flick pays homage to the great, empty spaces out West, the deserts, the mountains, the ghost towns. He recognizes the timeless aesthetics of a car chase, which is a story in itself, the myth of the oppressed looking for a way out, chasing the glint of the horizon, far off as it may be.