Spine Film

Hellcab (1997)

Checker Cab taxi

Alternatively entitled Chicago Cab after its location, the action of Hellcab could take place in virtually any big city in the West. It is a tour through a nondescript urban landscape of office towers, run-down neighborhoods, vacant lots, and closed factories that chronicle the rise and decline of industrial society. A taxi is driven by an anonymous man through this setting and receives a series of passengers. Their lives make an impression on the frequently empathetic driver and his cab functions as 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 rehearsed serenity of the parents contrasts the anger or bitterness of many people who follow and his cab serves as a repository for their negativity.

His next passengers include a threatening cocaine addict, 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 couples 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.

His other clients are two inebriated New Yorkers, a menacing stranger, a man with a somber tale of losing his mother to cancer, and a rape victim. The driver is exposed to episodes of human experience, and he becomes an involuntary, 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, like some post-modern peripatetic priest.

In Hellcab, the journeys are a metaphor for 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 is unlucky, or at least 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 nature of existence. Religion, drugs, career, politics, emotions, business, or relationships are mere diversions on the ride. They are the beliefs, addictions, or obsessions that motivate and justify forward motion. 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. Traversing the indifferent big city the driver becomes its tortured conscience.

Directed by Mary Cybulski and John Tintori

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

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