Life on the Road – Movies Set Mostly in a Car

Andrew Buckle,

To celebrate the release of Drive My Car, the extraordinary Japanese drama that won Best International Film at the recent Academy Awards, we thought it would be fun to also honour some interesting movies whose narrative unfolds predominantly within the confines of a car (or vehicle).

Drive My Car is directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour) and based on Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name. Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a stage actor and director struggling with the loss of his beloved wife, accepts a job to direct a multilingual production of Uncle Vanja at a theater festival in Hiroshima. There he meets Misaki (Tōko Miura), an introverted young woman, who is appointed by the company to chauffer him around. It is on these emotionally intimate rides that secrets from the past and heartfelt confessions are unveiled.

This life on the road style has been utilised to great effect in various capacities. For comedy, notably by Jerry Seinfeld in his now 10 season-spanning, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and by James Corden in Carpool Karaoke. For engineering experimentation and vehicular education, we have shows such as Top Gear.

And we can’t forget the epic chase movie (see Mad Max: Fury Road) which use cars as metallic tombs for many involved, and fortresses for the fleeing heroes. We haven’t included any of these films in this list, opting for smaller-scale stories that explore character and theme through their active participation with other characters or via phone within the environment of their car.

The car is a capsule that propels not only the characters through their experiences, framing them in a unique way, but also serves as the viewers’ vessel through the story. What these filmmakers achieve, considering the physical confines of the engine of their story, is fascinating to unpack.

The following list of films are a blend of thrillers, comedies, dramas, and formally-bold social commentaries we feel are well worth checking out if you are interested in this sub-genre.

Locke (2013)

Ivan Locke’s (Tom Hardy) life unravels after he decides to leaves his construction site at a critical time and drives to London to be present for the birth of a child conceived during a one-night stand.

This is a brilliant one-man show from Hardy who communicates with the rest of the cast entirely via the phone calls from his car. If you listen carefully enough you might be able to recognise Olivia Colman, Tom Holland, Andrew Scott and Ruth Wilson as part of the voice cast. The film is completely comprised of this single, riveting car ride, showcasing how a single decision can leave a ripple of disastrous consequences.

Buy or rent now in the Movie Store.

Collateral (2004)

Cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) picks up a man (Tom Cruise) who offers him $600 to drive him around all night. But the promise of easy money sours when Max realizes his fare is an assassin, and the locations are the sites of a string of hits he has been hired to undertake.

This brilliant film is memorable for Dion Beebe’s striking digital photography of central Los Angeles, a trademark of Michael Mann’s more recent films, and the electrifying against-type villain performance from a silver-haired Tom Cruise. While key story beats take place outside of Max’s cab, including a nightclub shootout and the thrilling conclusion on the subway, the core of the film – the relationship between Max and Vincent – plays out through a shifting power dynamic from the front and back seats.

Buy or rent in the Movie Store.

Taste of Cherry (1997)

A middle-aged Tehranian man, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), is intent on killing himself and seeks someone to bury him after his demise. Driving around the dusty outskirts of Tehran, the seemingly well-to-do Badii meets with numerous people, unsuccessfully convincing them to take on the job. Eventually, Badii finds a man – a middle-aged Turkish taxidermist – who is up for the task, but his new associate soon awakens him to the simple pleasures of life and tries to talk him out of his agenda.

One of the great films from the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy, Close-up), this captivating meditation on life, death, religion and conflict features an emotive central performance – offering a unique perspective of a desperate man, out of touch with life and stripped of all obligations and motivations – as well as an enlightening look at the bustling vitality of Iranian working life.

Buy or rent in the Movie Store.

Tehran Taxi (2015)

The film’s premise is a simple one. A yellow cab is driving through the vibrant and colourful streets of Tehran. A diverse selection of passengers enter the taxi, each candidly expressing their views on topics as varied as death, art and politics, while being interviewed by the driver who is no one else but the film’s director, Jafar Panahi. This was Panahi’s third feature since a ban was imposed on him in Iran, following This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, which presented Panahi’s frustration at Iranian censorship.

With a camera on the dashboard Panahi has created a mobile film studio that challenges the ways that real life and art collide, as he continues to demonstrate the power of cinema as a political tool. With his natural charisma, and the fact that the passengers don’t appear to recognise Panahi, it is initially difficult to evaluate whether this journey is scripted or not. He’s such a bold technician that he may have simply been cruising around as a social experiment. The mystery is ultimately solved in the second half, as the story gets more personal, but this comedic and dramatic study of the spirit of Iranian society is an ingeniously conceived and executed single-taxi film.

Buy or rent in the Movie Store.

The Trip (2010)

The Trip originally aired as a six-part television series and the success – as well as the endearing chemistry between celebrated British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – has resulted in several excellent sequels (The Trip to Italy, Spain and Greece). Commissioned by The Observer to whip up a lifestyle article about fine dining and travel in the Lake District of northern England, a semi-fictional Coogan invites his obliging friend to join him on the road trip.

Brydon’s chipper persona and relentless banter and Coogan’s doleful indifference to the job leads to hilarious exchanges (often in cars) of droll bickering, mock insults, recitals of Wordsworth and Coleridge and dueling impressions of movie stars. The rest of the series, while all tackling different realms of the stars’ life experiences – celebrity image, legacy, family and graceful aging amongst them – doubles down on the stars’ strengths (impressions!) but at its core remains an observant study of camaraderie through thick and thin, as well as embracing the flavours of great food and wine and taking a moment to appreciate the beauty of the world we live in.

Buy or rent the entire series in the Movie Store.

Wheelman (2017)

An unnamed getaway driver (Frank Grillo – the man is in everything, check out our spotlight on his career) realizes he has been double-crossed during a bank robbery gone wrong, and decides to hunt down those that have betrayed him.

The always-great Garrett Dillahunt and Shea Wigham co-star in this taut, white-knuckle thriller that clocks in at 82 minutes. What makes Wheelman unique (though it does share many of the same traits as Locke) is that viewers very rarely leave the interior of the cars. The cars are awesome BTW – a black BMW 3 Series (E46) for instance. Filmmaker Jeremy Rush finds many spots to position his cameras inside the car, observing the pressure-cooker situation that Grillo finds himself in as he negotiates the demands of the mobsters via phone, creating an intense and claustrophobic feeling.

Watch on Netflix. Streaming subscription required.

Cosmopolis (2012)

The premise of Cosmopolis is the journey of 28-year-old billionaire asset manager, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), as he rides slowly across Manhattan in his stretch limousine/office to his barber of choice. As a result of traffic jams caused by anti-capitalist street protesters and the funeral of Eric’s favourite musician, he runs into a series of obstacles that tear his world of privilege and excess apart.

What is fascinating about this film – which, being adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel, does border on being a talky essay about the decay of urban America – is the juxtaposition between the sleek, high-tech and spacious interior of his limousine and the chaos and destruction going on around him, including the exterior of the limo (covered in graffiti and beaten). Every time Eric steps out of the limo, he is involved in an incident of some sort and becomes increasingly unkempt (his tie and suit jacket are lost, and he ends up with pie remnants glued to his face) as he starts on path to abandon his life of excess and luxury.

Buy or rent in the Movie Store.

On the Road (2012)

Having not read Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel, my understanding is that Walter Salles’ adaptation of this “unfilmable” text is as close as you’re going to get. On the Road tells the story of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a young writer whose life is shaken and redefined by the arrival of free-spirited Westerner, Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund). Traveling cross-country, Sal, Dean and Marylou (Kristen Stewart) take off on a personal quest for freedom from the conformity and conservatism engulfing them.

While On the Road is hedonism overload, it does a great job of transporting a viewer to this particular era; serving as a tour of the United States. Though it’s spotlight of masculinity most notably concerns the trials and tribulations of the New York intellectual, and the aspirations of an inspiration-starved writer, it does incorporate the cultural booms (the emerging Jazz scene is punctuated by the score) from the time. On the Road is most fascinating as an embrace of the freedom of responsibility and independence of a life on the road.

Buy or rent in the Movie Store.

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