Last time four of Driver’s top 5 taxi movies were revealed. This time, the unlikely fifth entry achieves it’s status because it resonates with Driver’s current predicament. Punter would tease him for indulging in pop-psychology, but it doesn’t matter what Punter thinks …
Which brings us to Collateral. Not the kind of film Driver would normally give so much credit to, it snuck into the top five for its first ever appearance at the very last minute. Released in 2004, it starred Jamie Foxx as Max, the taxi driver, Jada Pinkett Smith as US Justice Department prosecutor Annie Farrell and the cold and arrogant Tom Cruise as Vincent, an extremely effective hired killer, meaning little Tommy didn’t need to act much in this role.
Right up front, you’ve got to suspend all disbelief about the plot: would a hit man, who has a single night to find and kill six people in six different locations spread throughout a very big and very busy Los Angeles, choose a taxi piloted by a driver he has never met as his mode of transport? No, of course not. Stupid idea. It was written by an Australian, Stuart Beattie, who came up with the idea while in a taxi, being driven home from Sydney airport. I’m not saying his nationality explains the stupidity of the plot, but that it’s not surprising to find out he was only seventeen at the time he wrote it, because who else but a seventeen year old boy would hatch such a notion? But despite the rapidly mounting pile of dead bodies Vincent rains down upon and gathers about our taxi driving hero, Max, it is the dialogue in the film that delivered it to Driver’s top five.
He first saw it on release – with Punter again – at Cinema Nova, which he doesn’t like much. Uncomfortable seats, pokey little cinemas, ordinary sound system. Its main redeeming feature is that it’s across Lygon Street from Ti Amo, where they know how to make coffee and hire waitresses. He and Punter see a movie at Nova once a month and then nip over the road for spaghetti marinara, a few glasses of house red and a cup or two of decent coffee. It’s a routine they’ve followed every month, more or less, for the sixteen-odd years since they both finished uni. Very occasionally they skip the movie. But something has got to be seriously out of kilter with their lives for Driver and Punter not to do the third Tuesday night of the month at Ti Amos.
In a perfect illustration of Minnie’s enduring patience, Driver saw Collateral again on the couch at home, the night after he and Minnie had their breakfast exchange about taxi driving and related misadventures. Harry, Driver’s sleek, black, possibly homosexual cat, had curled up and fallen asleep on his lap before Jamie Foxx’s Max had pulled out of the depot in the film’s first few frames. Minnie shared the couch with Driver and Harry and was also asleep. She’d nestled into the crook of his arm, with her beautiful pregnant belly pressed into Driver’s side and her face receiving an occasional brush from Harry’s tail as whatever dream he was having took an exciting turn. It was pretty crowded, or cosy, depending on how you looked at it, and how either of Harry or Minnie could sleep with all that shooting going on was something Driver could envy but not ever hope to emulate. How Minnie could continue sleeping when the baby started doing tumble-turns inside her womb was even more difficult to understand. Driver’s excitement at feeling his child through Minnie’s belly caused him to hit the pause button a few times during the movie, to remove all other sensations and savour the contact. They were like little ad breaks for his coming fatherhood.
The movie’s relevance to Driver at that time in his life could be boiled down to two scenes, both inside Max’s cab, both bullet-free and bloodless. The first was shortly after the film began with prosecutor babe Annie Farrell in the back seat. Driver didn’t approve of her ironed-straight hair, which just sanitised her natural beauty in his view, but what connected for Driver was that these two characters represented Driver’s two professions. His past and present. And given the amount of conversation between he and Minnie about which of those two professions was best for him, for them and for their growing family, Driver was always going to relate to aspects of the film more that night than he previously had. It was why he rented it out.
So Annie gets into the back seat of Max’s cab. She’s distracted, talking on her mobile, treating the cabbie with no respect. No hello, no smile, no eye contact. Just gives him the address like she’s leaving a voice-message on a machine and continues with her call. Driver knows the type. They treat the human in the front seat – their driver – like a machine, and the machine in their hand – the mobile phone – like a human. Even when they use the machine for reasons other than to connect them with another human voice, such as for emails, or texts, or online poker.
Sometimes a passenger won’t offer more than a few words to their driver for the whole trip. ‘333 Little Collins’, or ‘corner of King and Lonsdale’, or ‘Qantas domestic’. And after the first few seconds there’ll be no further interaction until the destination is reached, a plastic card is silently pushed forward, the transaction completed, the door opened and the passenger is out and gone.
In Annie Farrell’s case it gets worse before it gets better. Finally off the phone, her first lines of communication beyond her destination details are to tell Max a better route. Now there’s nothing wrong with a passenger suggesting a quicker drive, but there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way. And I know what you’re thinking; any fool can drive a car down a street, but practicing law takes years of training. Possibly, from a particular point of view, the lawyer’s training deserves more respect than the taxi driver’s. But the taxi driver has not earned his passenger’s disrespect.
Like Driver, our man Max is pretty cool though. He knows how to handle these types. He’s seen them all before and he can read them as clearly as a headline in the newspaper. Their clothes, their shoes, their hair, their jewellery, their briefcase, their phone, their luggage, where they sit, how they sit, if they talk, how they talk, with whom they talk, with what accent they talk, what they talk about, where they look, what they look at. A couple of seconds and it’s done, just like reading a headline. So he’s familiar enough with the Annie Farrells of the world to know how to respond. Not only does he suggest his route is faster, but he offers the ride free if he isn’t right. If she accepts the offer she accepts Max as her equal, just for an instant. And who knows where that could lead? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? It’s a philosophy dear to Driver’s heart.
Max and Annie get to talking. Because she perceives in Max something she hadn’t expected and possibly even worthy of her respect, she commits a morsel of her attention. She discloses a little of herself, telling him, among other things, of her fears and her self-doubts in the court room. Why would she offer up such intimate insights into her own professional anxieties when just minutes before she was dismissive enough to tell Max how to do his job? Because of Max’s gift for his work. Because there’s more to it than merely driving. Because a taxi driver is not an isolated being and a taxi is not a metal coffin, even if Paul Schrader thinks so.
Anyway, Max drops Annie at her office. The ride is paid for – because Max’s route was faster – then, after leaving the taxi, Annie gets no further than a few steps across the pavement before she comes back to give Max her phone number and encourages him to call her to ask her out on a date. What’s that if it’s not successful wooing? Driver’s experience is that, while in real life such chance meetings don’t happen all that often, they do still happen. If you look for them, if you are open to the possibilities, spot them early enough then actively go out and chase them, they do still happen. And where else are they going to happen but in a taxi? With the one-to-one intimacy. The reliance of one person upon another. The sudden levelling of the playing field. That’s what taxi driving means to Driver.
It isn’t until near the end of the havoc wreaking that the second of Driver’s favourite scenes occurs. It’s in the taxi again and it just two people again, although this time there’s definitely no wooing going on. Vincent has killed five of the six targets on his list, together with a far greater number of others who met their fate as collateral damage. And Max is going through all sorts of anguish over his involvement in the death of all these people, while his fear for his own safety keeps him driving the psychopathic Vincent from one hit to the next.
Max belatedly concludes that he’s not going to survive the night. That Vincent can’t let him stay alive. At about the same time, it also becomes clear to Max that Annie Farrell is Vincent’s final hit. He decides rebellion is possibly a safer option than compliance and as they drive through the early morning Los Angeles streets, he challenges Vincent, telling him he’s shallow and has no insight into people. No insight into their motives and emotions.
Vincent replies with a dismissive snort. ‘Some day, some day my dream will come,’ he mockingly imitates words Max had previously said.
‘One night you’ll wake up and you’ll discover it never happened and never will. Suddenly you are old. It didn’t happen and never will because you were never going to do it anyway,’ Vincent taunts him. ‘What the fuck are you doing still driving a cab?’
Max knows Vincent is right, that he’s been kidding himself, putting off until tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow what he should have already done a long time ago but was afraid to try in case he failed. And the sudden weight of the realisation of his past failures, plus his quite probable lack of a future beyond that very night in which to address those failures, triggers Max to finally take matters into his own hands, come what may.
Sitting on his couch, cocooned by the intimately beating hearts of his now and future family, Driver saw the parallels and the opposites that described and differentiated himself and Max. Max drove taxis as a vehicle he hoped would transport him to something better, but found his fear wouldn’t let him risk the safety of what he knew for an unknown but potentially brighter future. Whereas, if you’d asked Driver at any time since his father’s death six years earlier, right up until that night, he would have told you that he drove taxis not as a means to another end, but as the end itself. The driving was the destination.
But he knew Minnie thought differently. Minnie thought he was just like Max – or would have if she’d stayed awake to watch the movie – and maybe she saw the consequences of Driver’s inaction not too far down the road? Maybe she saw that her life with Driver was at some kind of crossroads and that’s what she meant when she said what she did at breakfast the morning before?
One miscarriage, then a second. So devastating for Minnie. So devastating for him, too, but in a very different way. Driver grieved because of Minnie’s grief. He wished with all his heart she didn’t feel it so acutely and so deeply, even though he knew that it could hardly be any other way. He grieved for the life of his child, lost before it began. And not just once, but twice. But those lost lives were not as tangible to Driver as Minnie’s grief. They were secondary to Minnie’s grief. The main reason he wanted a child was because Minnie did and he suffered the loss of those children because Minnie did.
That little wedge of distance, that interest in parenthood only by proxy, led to a part of him feeling like he’d been let of the hook. As if his lack of genuine commitment to being a father had escaped the test that the birth of their child would have brought. After the first miscarriage, he had been given a second chance to prove himself, to test whether his potential enthusiasm for fatherhood was real or not, but then that second chance had also been snatched away.
Sitting on his couch that night watching Collateral, he realised for the first time that he had not moved past the unspoken guilt he felt because of his ambivalence about twice missing out on fatherhood. The very real grief he felt following his father’s killing, plus the equally real grief he felt at Minnie’s anguish had combined to smother the insight that he had not grown beyond that lack of complete genuineness. He had failed to let himself see that Minnie’s rising pleas for him to let go of the safety of being a taxi driver for something she thought of as better and more rewarding – not just for him, but also for her and for their child – was because that child was almost fully ripe inside her. Because this time there had been no miscarriage and because in a matter of days or, sat the most, weeks he would be a father and there would be no room for ambivalence.
‘Just how dumb are you?’ he asked himself, out loud, in the silence following the movie’s end.
‘And what the fuck are you doing still driving a cab?’
© Mick McCoy, 2013