King Car

King Car (Carro Rei) (2021)

Renata Pinheiro’s King Car (Carro Rei) opens with a montage of images: cows (with cowbells) walking among foliage; a tree half-hidden behind a plate-metal barrier; grass growing on an old car wreck; more cows, and more car wrecks. What all these images have in common is the clash of nature and technology that will come to dominate the film. For all this is in Brazil, where we know that under Jair Bolsonaro‘s current, controversial Presidency, rainforest is being rapidly cleared to create industrial-scale pastureland for the rearing of cattle. Pinheiro’s introduction offers a more complicated picture, as farmed cows coexist with plants, and nature peeks back through walls erected by humans and takes root once more on the carcasses of cars. It is a vision of a world suspended in an uneasy balance. 

The first narrative event in King Car is the appearance of a racing cab which finds its path blocked by a parked pickup truck and by gauchos on horseback herding cows, while another car drives up and blocks the passage behind, so that the cab can no more reverse than move forward. Trapped inside, the cab driver Josenildo (Adélio Lima) looks back at his wife Marileide (Ane Oliva) as she gives birth right there on the vehicle’s rear seat. And so from the moment he is born, their son Uno has a special relationship with cars. Not only is he taught by his father to drive at a very early age (when he is played by Alexandre Lima), but Uno (literally the ‘One’) also has a miraculous, messianic power to talk, Doolittle-like, with the vehicles, starting with that cab (number plate: OXO 3355) in which he was born and which is now his flattering best friend (voiced by Tavinho Teixheira). Yet when the cab swerves of its own accord to avoid hitting Uno in the street, it crashes, killing Uno’s mother Marileide at the driving wheel instead and removing Uno’s only feminine influence at home. So the cab’s impossible autonomous act comes with a double edge, no less destructive than it is salutary. Marileide is buried, and the wrecked OXO 3355 is put under wraps.

Years later, the young adult Uno (now played by Luciano Pedro Jr) is conflicted in his attitude to cars, and decides to go against his nature precisely by siding with nature. Rejecting his father’s desire that he take over the family cab company (“You were born for this”, Josenildo will vainly insist), the bicycle-riding Uno instead studies agroecology and agroforestry, and lives with a collective of environmentally-minded eccentrics (including his girlfriend Amora, played by Clara Pinheiro) who are determined to foster small-scale, sustainable agriculture within the local Brazilian municipality of Caruaru (a location no doubt chosen in part because of the first three letters of its name). Yet as a new law is passed banning from the road any vehicle over 15 years old (including Josenildo’s entire fleet of cabs), Uno finds himself divided between his different legacies – for when he is not rewilding the poisoned earth of a disused car junkyard for the Association of Family Argriculture, he is, with his mechanic uncle Zé (Matheus Nachtergaele), reclaiming and refitting second-hand cars as modern new vehicles for the community’s working classes.

King Car
The artist Mercedes (Jules Elting) leaves her mark on the cars

Zé is a genius at engine repair, but rather lacking when it comes to human interactions, and his nickname ‘Macaco’ (or ‘Monkey’) not only refers to his decidedly simian movements and gestures, but also to his backward place on the evolutionary scale. Evolution is also one of Zé’s constant preoccupations – for he does not “think humankind is a natural species”, but rather “a cultural animal that also develops” alongside the technology with which we have become co-dependent since the first rock was used as a tool in prehistoric times. “Perhaps we already are machines,” Zé tells Uno, even as Zé’s welding helmet makes him resemble nothing less than a robot, “and these technological gadgets we make are our offspring.” If this is reminiscent of some concepts in Julia Ducournau’s Titane, then King Car is the second film from 2021 to feature sex between a human and a car. For Zé radically refurbishes Cab OXO 3355, following instructions provided by the crash-damaged car itself and related to Zé by car-interpreting Uno. Renamed ‘King Car’ and remodelled with his own voice-box so that he can now communicate with all humans, this über-automobile sweet-talks the patriarchy-fucking artist Mercedes (Jules Elting) – a perfect name for the overlap between human and automobile – into becoming his human Queen, while his wheedling tones also persuade disgruntled locals to help him build a whole army of modified vehicles. This is done in the name of a revolutionary social justice movement, but King Car has his own hidden agenda, designed to bring about a technological singularity where humans will become the hoodwinked, eventually zombified slaves of a grander vehicular takeover.

Lifting its spare parts from Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), John Carpenter’s Christine (1983). Alex Orr’s Blood Car (2007), James Cameron’s Terminator series and Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, Pinheiro’s low-budget, lo-fi parable offers a prelude to dystopian carmageddon, while also – like Kleber Mendhonça Filho and Juliano Domelles’ Bacurau (2019) – using this localised dystopian scenario as a broader vehicle for the social and environmental apocalypse facing our species on a national, even global scale. Despite the royal title, King Car feels like a used banger: scrappy around the edges, a little underpowered and certainly not the best-looking film on the road. Here everything is messy, complicated, unsteerable: both solidarity and recycling, though part of the solution, are also very much framed as part of the problem; and a group devoted to ecological preservation also can get their community work done only by resorting to a polluting pickup truck. Yet the film’s big, often contradictory ideas are what keep it running, catalytically converting agitprop to more palatable allegory, while exposing our species’ barrelling momentum towards an endpoint where we are no longer in the driving seat of our own mechanised creations. In this early rise of the machines, what gives the engines their seductive, near irresistible purr is capitalism itself, whose ‘progress’ is fuelled by avarice and exploitation.

strap: Renata Pinheiro’s satire of technological singularity shows the seductive subjugation of our species to the capitalist machine

© Anton Bitel