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The first time I saw the video of Willie Little racing a stolen cop car from Norton, Virginia, to Jenkins, Kentucky, I was huddled around a large TV screen with about a dozen other people. We had the sound turned up real loud and you could feel the car shaking through the television set’s sub-par speakers. It was like you were right there in the passenger seat. We were captivated.
How do you keep an audience’s attention through 15-minutes of nothing but winding roads? Perhaps it fascinates me because I make that same drive several times a week for work, and I’ve committed every curve and bump and topographic feature to memory. Perhaps it’s because I know that this stretch of highway takes at least half an hour to cover, and Willie Little does it in half that. I’ve showed it to people who are unfamiliar with I-23 between Jenkins, Kentucky, and Norton, Virginia, and they always find it inexplicably dramatic.
I think that’s because, like any great drama, the film has three acts. The first two take place in Virginia, ending with a daring climax at the top of Pine Mountain, on the border of Virginia and Kentucky. The third act is the descent from the mountain and into Kentucky, where reality slams into ambition, where hell unfolds.
Yet it’s what we can’t see that propels the drama. We never see our protagonist. We join him after he’s already stolen the police cruiser, as he’s heading up the entry ramp to the highway. Officers radio each other in disbelief. “Lord, the subject has just stolen our police car!” You hear Willie’s reply: “Why hello there!” He sounds pleasantly thrilled and in his element.
Willie Little was ambitious, but not without reason. The series of events that culminated in this document are phenomenal. It’s like a diamond or a rare earth mineral, something beautiful that was forged apart from human or even divine intervention. How did Willie steal a police cruiser and, while wearing handcuffs, drive at an average speed of 100 miles per hour for 12 minutes? How was there not a single cop between Norton and the state line? How did he not wreck the vehicle? How did he not kill someone or himself? Is this a commentary on rural infrastructure, rural law and order, or human ambition? Maybe it’s all three.
It’s the little things that really stand out, like Willie Little’s inability to get the sirens to turn on, resulting in his manic reliance on the horn. There’s the van at 7:35 that refuses to get out of his path, and the near-collision at 9:59. There’s the sheer speed and adrenaline, the vicarious experience of something you’ve always dreamed of doing, heading home from work back to Kentucky, wanting to floor it like you’re a character in a Bruce Springsteen song. It’s all here.
I’ve given this film the tentative title of Willie Little’s Last Ride. After the troopers threw down the tire spikes at the end, when all was said and done, Little was sentenced to prison for 40 years for endangering the lives of two police officers. He likely won’t be stealing any more police cruisers.
Four decades seems unnecessarily harsh to me. He endangered some lives, sure, but that doesn’t mean we can’t thank him for his inadvertent contribution to the cinematic arts. The film is an unacknowledged masterpiece of cinema verité (whatever that means). Perhaps it’ll never make it to the Criterion Collection, but we can thank the Internet for providing it to us free of charge.
The final two minutes of the film are one of the most unsettling scenes in modern cinema. After we see Willie Little lose control and crash, as the dashcam struggles to focus on a hillside, we wonder: will he make a run for it? But then we hear a police officer screaming at him in that familiar voice of authority, the tone that says, “I’m going to make you pay for making me look like a fool.”
And as the dust and debris settles on the windshield, I’m reminded of Macbeth’s realization of the potentially murderous ambitions within him. He truly wants to know what’s worse: resigning to ambition, or embracing it?