Spine Film

Hellcab (1997)

Checker Cab taxi

Hellcab is alternatively entitled Chicago Cab owing to its location, but the action could take place in virtually any city in the West. It is a tour through a nondescript urban landscape in a taxi driven by an anonymous man. The images of office towers, run-down neighborhoods, deserted lots, and vacant factories invoke the rise and decline of industrial society. Passengers arrive and alight while the facts of their lives make an impression on the frequently empathetic driver. His day is a sequence of interactions in a car which is a vehicle for sardonic social comment.

In the dark of a winter solstice morning the driver collects his first fare. A Christian family are on their way to church before work on a weekday. They are going there routinely, and their faith is habitual. The driver declines the invitation to attend with them. The rehearsed serenity of the parents contrasts the anger or bitterness of the many who follow. He serves as a repository for their negativity.

His next passengers include a threatening cocaine addict with his associates, a young man on his way to confront a shady car dealer, a licentious couple on their way to a motel, and a middle-aged woman who tries to seduce him. A couple temporarily inspire the driver with their seemingly pleasant exchanges, before the woman departs, and the man betrays his conception of the relationship. After sundown the driver starts to encounter a different clientele with darker destinations. An elderly lush in the backseat declares and insists on her love for him. Then he picks up two couples in succession who are in the throes of relationship dissolution. Their tenuous and unsatisfactory arrangements reflect the impermanence of his own interactions. The lovers are driver and passenger of convenience nearing the end of their ride.

Two inebriated and abusive New Yorkers want him to go to Hooters with them. The invitation to a temple of consumerism is declined in the same spirit as the invitation to church. The reveler's smiles are also superficial, and dissolve on his refusal.

His other clients are an ostensibly menacing stranger, a man with a somber tale of losing his mother to cancer, and a rape victim. The driver is exposed to concentrated excerpts of human experience, and he either lurches into the depth of someone's crisis or becomes a reluctant, impotent witness. The cab is a confessional, and the driver is like the moving scenery; something upon which to project fears or disappointments. The convention is that he will listen, absorb, and absolve. He is the post-modern peripatetic priest.

In Hellcab, the journeys are a metaphor for geographic and social mobility. The man with no name is compelled by lack of opportunity in his small hometown of Rockford to move to Chicago. Driving a cab is all he can find that pays when he gets there. Some of his customers appear to share that variety of economic disadvantage. Their life chances and capacity to pay for the ride are both limited.

No matter where the driver goes or who he picks up there is always a down side, and driving a cab is a risky enterprise. At one point the taxi driver is directed to an abandoned building before being advised over the radio to get out of the area. Near the conclusion of his shift he sees another taxi sweep in ahead of him to pick up a contented pair who are arm in arm. They are the kind of fare he would welcome, but he should know better. Appearances can deceive. Either he is just unlucky, just not connected, or just not lucky enough to be connected. Some of his passengers obviously are, but even taking tips from them can produce a sense of guilt or agonizing gratitude.

The film is an allegory for the emptiness of existence. Religion, drugs, career, politics, emotions, business, or sex are mere diversions on the ride. They are the beliefs, addictions, or obsessions that motivate and justify continued participation. The more money, the more elaborate the distraction. For the driver there is only the prospect of another shift during which to contemplate social injustice and the vagaries of fate. Roaming the indifferent big city the driver becomes its tortured conscience.

Directed by Mary Cybulski and John Tintori

Copyright © Spine Film 2016

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Image credit: Thomas R Machnitzki Checker Cab taxi Memphis TN 006

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