Two lovers meet in a motel room for a tryst. Clay pretends to hunt down Rose with a gun in a playful, frisky way, but then they get to talking, as lovers do, about their near-death experiences. Clay talks about being stepped on by a horse, which put him in a hospital for weeks as he struggled to stay alive.
But Rose tells a story about her car breaking down on the deserted highway and being picked up by a man who is a murderer. Her only hope is creating some kind of connection with her potential killer, but that decision has its perils and unexpected consequences.
Written and directed by Emma Elizabeth Tillman, this thoughtful, brooding short drama combines visual poeticism with a powerful meditation of life, death and compassion. The structure of the film is woven around the two stories that the lovers tell, making the bulk of the narrative a flashback. The story-within-a-scene makes the film a moment of a couple deepening their intimacy with one another. But it’s also a more sinister, suspenseful journey into a woman’s almost spiritual fight for survival — one that will transform her, her potential killer and eventually the man she comes to love later.
Threaded through the film and unifying the two narrative strands is a pristine, unerring sense of visuals, burnished with the hazy warmth of both a roadside motel room and a desolate sun-soaked stretch of desert. The camera has a delicacy of touch, with graceful movements that capture the off-hand yet telling detail, like a careworn glance or the way Clay sweeps a gun across his room. But the storytelling also remains disciplined enough to patiently construct a narrative that becomes a remarkably complex story.
Framing the main action as a flashback may not have the immediacy that a present-tense narrative offers, but it creates a thoughtfulness that foregrounds Rose’s experience as an emotional and even spiritual one. On paper, the narrative Rose recounts could be the plot of a thriller. And while suspense does pull viewers into the question of how Rose escaped her killer, the most profound and impactful “events” of the story happen internally.
Likewise, actor Susan Traylor’s powerful performance is less about “playing” an action, but more an embodiment of a woman making decisions based on intuition. She can only choose to be calm, open and accepting in a tense situation, present to what’s happening in front of her. What’s remarkable is that this receptivity has remained with her, and Traylor brings it into her relationship with Clay, deepening their connection. But how she comes to this profound emotional openness — and what consequences it brings — is a dark night of the soul, one where she confronts her most terrifying fears and is changed at the end.
When we say a film is “poetic,” we often refer to work whose striking images and sounds evoke internal states of revelation and insight, where shifts in consciousness are privileged over external action. “The Wheel” is certainly poetic in that sense, but it is also a spellbinding, gripping slow burn of a story, one that carries viewers through harrowing terrain and lands them on the other side. We come to its end weathered like Rose by the deeper mysteries of existence, where the borders between life and death collapse, revealing the most vulnerable burdens of being human in a world that is often anything but.