Wheelman is a modest failure, but it offers a tantalizing glimpse of a far more entertaining movie that stretches the notion of Bring Your Daughter to Work Day to its limit.
The compact setting of Wheelman is established in the first shot, a dark, murky image revealed to be from a camera set in the backseat of a car as a man turns on the lights of a garage, illuminating the frame in a sickly white glow. The man, Clay (Garret Dillahunt), lumbers back to the car after opening the garage, gets in and drives just outside, where he hands the vehicle off to a wheelman (Frank Grillo) he has hired to be the getaway driver for a bank heist. The flourish of the long take is simultaneously flashy and superfluous, a lot of planning to go into movement that progresses about 20 yards from inside a garage to just outside of it, and it prefigures a film that often puts too fine a point on how much it is trying to liven up its constricted frames.
Once the unnamed protagonist gets behind the wheel, the film shifts to his perspective, with darting shots that synchronize his movement with the car’s: close-ups of his foot pressing the gas, tires spinning, dashboard gauges flooding into the red as the vehicle speeds off. Even when we get our first glimpse of the wheelman, it is filtered through the car, his face heavily shadowed but for the flash of light reflecting off the rearview mirror. The man is so focused on driving that all other matters are secondary, a trait that carries over to the camerawork when the wheelman picks up the robbers for the heist and we seem them blurred in shallow focus behind him. One of the men (Shea Whigham) attempts to make small talk, asking for the driver’s name and exchanging casual vulgarities to loosen everyone up, but his chattiness is met with stony silence, and even an instruction to shut up. The driver’s frosty behavior gradually brings the robber into focus as the man takes offense, generating an instability to the job that the wheelman cannot afford to ignore.
For all Jeremy Rush’s stylistic displays, his film truly finds momentum when the job goes down and the driver receives a call from a mysterious man claiming to be the organizer for the heist. He instructs the wheelman to take the money and leave the two robbers behind, claiming they will kill him otherwise. In a moment of panic, the driver follows the caller’s instructions, leading to an extended back and forth in which the protagonist attempts to suss out who is double-crossing whom. With the camera still locked inside the car, the audience sees only the driver’s frantic face as he speaks with the unknown caller, Clay and another mysterious person, all of whom shout obscenities at him, give him conflicting instructions and sound as if they’re planning to use him as the patsy against the other two parties. Surprisingly, these intertwining conversations never get convoluted, but that may be a testament to the simplistic narrative, which keeps barreling forward with minimal deviation from its core premise of a panicked getaway driver zooming around town attempting to avoid attention.
The repetitive structure does not preclude some exciting moments. An extended bit with a trailing motorcyclist is built slowly, with the bike introduced in a quick pause behind the driver’s momentarily stopped car before speeding off unnoticed, all the way to a warped game of chicken when the biker is discovered. The two then engage in a stretched-out, stop-start chase scene that ends in a thrilling anticlimax. For the most part, however, this gimmick, mined once and better in 2013’s Locke, prevents the film from growing beyond its initial quirk. Grillo suffers worst of all; this is a role that could provide a sharp, lean genre showcase, but he is so often reduced to being an ear for the many offscreen characters calling him that he barely gets to express emotions beyond anger. There’s no elasticity to the part and thus no room to stretch out even in the confines of the car.
Wheelman only truly excels when it breaks from its structure in the final act, swapping from a game of keep-away to one in which the pursued becomes the pursuer. It also brings in the wheelman’s daughter, Katie (Caitlin Carmichael), whose sporadic phone calls throughout the film provided a sharp contrast in tone to the incessant harassment of criminals. On the phone, Katie is combative and pouty, amusingly frustrating her already frayed father, but in person she proves capable and resourceful, scared as she is sucked into her dad’s dangerous work but nonetheless able to think under pressure. The father-daughter chemistry between the two characters brings some much-needed energy to the film as it starts to flag, and it allows both actors to stretch their chops in ways the rest of the movie does not. As lean neo-noir, Wheelman is a modest failure, but it offers a tantalizing glimpse of a more gonzo, far more entertaining movie that stretches the notion of Bring Your Daughter to Work Day to its limit.