The device of the car and its point of view is more than just a gimmick. It’s an innovative and, ultimately, very effective storytelling technique. If the car doesn’t see some piece of the action, we don’t see it either. Because of that, the story comes to us in fragments that, like any good noir, are deceptive and misleading. The story comes together piece by piece, like a puzzle, until finally we can see . . . not the whole picture. Never the whole picture. But, enough to understand what’s going on and appreciate the characters and their actions.
It also allows for some great and artistic camera work. Getting a clear shot of the central characters from the front seat of a car is no easy task, and figuring out how to keep a film visually interesting from such a limited perspective can be even harder. The film manages it in some great ways, including a couple of scenes that play out entirely in the side-view mirror.
To make the film even more disjointed and puzzle-like, a lot of it is told out of order, like Memento or Pulp Fiction. A seemingly innocuous scene will play, then, a few minutes later, we’ll see the far less innocuous events that led up to it. Sometimes a scene will replay virtually verbatim, but with an entirely new perspective on what it means.
To tell you about the plot would be to do you a disservice, since it’s far more effective to be thrown right into the middle of it and forced to figure out the entire thing, bit by bit, for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that it involves a man named Kansas (Will Estes) and his girlfriend Lonely (Emily Foxler) who may or may not have committed a murder, and possibly another crime involving money. The film mainly follows Kansas (since he owns the car), driving through the streets of the city in the aftermath of this crime.
The film is very noir. Not the hard-boiled, fast-talking private eye type of noir that tends to typify the genre for a lot of people. Instead, it’s the darker, more ambiguous type of noir where everyone is guilty of something, and the main character spirals into increasing desperation as the film progresses. It’s reminiscent of French noir like Elevator to the Gallows or Le Samourai. Or, to a lesser extent, the Billy Wilder classic Double Indemnity. It’s rare to see a film like that being done these days, and it’s even rarer to see it done right. Automotive succeeds, though, making it a lot of fun to watch.
The cast is great, too. Will Estes carries the film well, delivering the largely understated performance of a character somewhat reminiscent of Leonard Shelby from Memento. He doesn’t forget what he’s doing every few minutes, but through much of the film he’s not entirely sure what’s going on or how he got mixed up in it, and has to piece it together from the clues around him. Emily Foxler is great as the girlfriend, Lonely, who definitely seems to be. But, the real standout performance is Ross McCall as “Nondescript.” He’s the sort of character you love to hate, part sociopathic mafia underling, part sleazy used car salesman type. And, he’s clearly having a lot of fun in the role.
All-in-all, this film fits together well, both in story and in production. It’s interesting and engaging and definitely worth checking out. It is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a terrific ride.
Automotive has its world premiere on Saturday, June 1st, at 9:30 p.m. at the TCL Chinese 6 Theatres (formerly Grauman’s Chinese) on Hollywood and Highland, as part of the Dances With Films independent film festival. Tickets can be purchased here.