Children of Men has some of the best long takes in cinema, and we can learn a thing or two from its best oner.
Long takes are one of the ways great directors love to show off their filmmaking skills. The point of the long take, or the oner, is to film an entire scene in one take or at least make it look like it was done in one take. Long takes are used as a storytelling tool to allow the audience to see the film from a singular point of view. This means that the lens can choose how it’s telling a story from a specific character or a non-subjective point of view.
Although there are many great long takes from films like Touch of Evil, Oldboy, and Goodfellas, no long take is better than the car scene from Children of Men. Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece features quite a few long takes throughout the film, but the car scene is a masterclass at understanding how to film a great oner while making sure it serves the story.
A Matter of Film breaks down the scene and examines how each beat of the long take works for the story in this video.
The opening beats
The long take is mastered by having the frame focus on the subject of the scene. In this case, the frame is focused on the five characters in the car. Each beat drives the story forward as the momentum of the scene’s events unfolds and the characters are adapting and reacting to their surroundings.
The opening beat of this long take focuses the frame on Theo (Clive Owens) as he wakes up in the car. The camera then backs into a wide shot, focusing on Theo and his former lover, Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore) in the frame before revealing the other people in the car with them. This second beat is a form of disclosure for the audience to know where and who is involved in this scene. Through a bit of dialogue, we discover the importance of Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey).
The shot moves into a medium close-up of Julian and Theo looking at each other as they play a game that only they can play. They are the only two people in the frame, and their purposeful isolation from everyone else showcases how their intimacy can block out the world around them. Not only does this final opening beat show the relationship our main character has with Julian, but it creates empathy for Julian as she expresses that she can’t do a specific thing without Theo.
The playfulness of the opening beats is quickly put to rest as the camera makes a 180 degree turn to the driver’s perspective. From his perspective, we see a car engulfed in flames coming out of the woods and blocking the road before them. The camera then does a slow 360-degree turn to capture everyone’s reactions as the driver tries to get them out of harm's way. The framing in this beat is much tighter on the character’s faces to capture their reaction to the threat right outside of their windows.
As the camera and the car speed backward, the perspective switches to an absent passenger’s point of view. This is a clever way to allow the audience to put themselves into the car with the other five characters, and feel the tension and danger of the scene.
Unlike the opening scene where the camera was focused on the characters inside the car, the camera and the audience is now glued to the events happening outside of the car. When the camera stops at a 360-degree turn, it shows the driver’s perspective to contrast the danger from the car burning in front of them to their car burning.
The camera then follows the attacking bikers still from the perspective of the driver. When Julian gets shot, the blood splatters onto the glass frame as if it were our own face. The camera then quickly turns to capture the reactions of the characters in the backseat as they process what has just happened. The camera then follows Theo in the next beat as he tries to save Julian and defends himself, before turning to the cracking window to build tension and suspense in the scene.
The framing of the window cracking gets about four seconds of focus to let the audience catch their breath before revealing the horrors of Theo cupping Julian’s bleeding wound as she slowly dies in his arms. Theo and Julian are captured in the same medium close-up as before, except this time Julian is facing away from him and the dangers of the world seem to be closing in.
The chase ends as the camera pans back to the driver, giving the audience a sense that the scene is over and Julian’s final breath will be off-camera, but the camera goes back to the window position and stations the audience as a ghost passenger in the car. The camera turns to look out the back window as cops pull up behind them and the character’s reactions to the events unfolding except for Julian, who has been cut from the frame because she has died.
Theo’s point of view
The long take ends from Theo’s point of view as the car comes to a stop for the cops. The cops pull their guns on the characters in the car, and the audience watches the interactions through a closed window as if we were in the back seat trying to go unnoticed. When Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) shoots the cops, the camera moves with Theo as he exits the car to confront the situation.
No one is on the same page anymore, and Theo stands on the other side of the road, confronting Luke and his intentions with taking on the mission. The camera stays where Theo would have wanted to stay if he was not forced back in the car, and we are left to watch them drive away to an unknown future.
This oner is intense and is efficiently showing a major turning point in the story in a way that a scene with cuts couldn’t achieve. What makes the car scene in Children of Men work is the quick contrasting shots and tight framing of characters to create suspense. No one is quite sure how anything in the film will play out past this point, and the suspense lingers for some time just as it does for the characters. There is nothing to hide from as the camera is set to capture every moment, and we are forced to watch the horrors unfold in front of us.
If you are going to do a long take, go for it! Make sure that the long take does serve the story and isn’t being used to show off your own filmmaking skills. Nothing is worse than a beautiful skill being used for an unnecessary reason. By using contrasting images almost seconds after each other and highlighting a specific perspective throughout the shot, you can create a perfectly executed moment in your film.
What are some of your favorite long shots from film? Let us know why they are your favorite in the comments below!