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Obscure thriller provides rare treat

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Posted: March 29, 2008 2:44 p.m.
Updated: May 29, 2008 5:03 a.m.
As Will Kern's play, Hellcab, must have been when it was first staged in 1992 in Chicago and then in subsequent performances by other theater companies, the film adaptation, with a screenplay also by Kern, is an actor's paradise.

Promising names appear in the opening credits: Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), John Cusack (High Fidelity), Julianne Moore (Freedomland, Far From Heaven). All reserved for the later nighttime scenes.

Then there is John C. Reilly, who is better known now for such films as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Chicago, where he played a basically invisible schlub who sung about such a lonely life as one. Here, years before those features, he plays the owner of a delicatessen chain who boasts about his business and about the woman he keeps on the side, prompting the cab driver (Paul Dillon, Paddy O'Brien in the first Austin Powers) to tell the woman at her office what the guy said, because to him, the woman seems to be such a nice person and she deserves better.

Dillon is the anchor of the film, without a name given so we can presumably relate more to what he goes through. The hours, the people, the breaks spent worrying about things that shouldn't be of concern during down time. It's all familiar.

His shift, two or three days before Christmas, starts with a religious couple and their young daughter going to church at 6 a.m., and the man tries to "save" the cab driver, imploring his young daughter to tell him when she was saved. By a newspaper the driver reads, we can see what kind of day it's going to be for him, as the Winter Solstice is mentioned, which includes the longest night of the year.

Long indeed, not just for the driver, but also for the viewer. Many of these actors are engaging, in performances designed to give as much as possible in a mere few minutes so that we at least get a sense of who these people are, and what we might find in them that we know. There are crazy people, such as the druggie played by Michael Shannon (Bad Boys II), always jonesing for the next fix, never aware of who is caught in his vortex, like the girl in the cab with him who only met him in a bar an hour before.

The drunk, the pregnant, the disturbed, exhibitionists, and even those feeling good all end up in his cab too. As each one gives him directions to where they need to go and then become themselves as their destination gets closer, there is always the need to quickly glance at him to see how he reacts.

The worst passenger for him, yet the best for us, is Cusack in a brief part, wearing a trenchcoat and never telling the driver where he wants to go, only commanding him to keep driving. He's quiet, altogether too quiet, and what will happen next? Does he have a gun with him? Is the driver in even more danger than he was with the druggie?

What there is in Cusack's character is all there needs to be. Lots of people prowl the streets every day with problems we can't even fathom and his man can't be figured out in five minutes. He'd have to have his own movie. Cusack is that effective.

Other actors are the same way, including personal favorite Julianne Moore as a rape victim who tells the driver that he should not be sorry about what happened to her, because he didn't cause it. Even with how relatively brief these roles are, the actors involved give everything they have.

It doesn't help the fact, however, that as the passengers change and as the driver complains to a food vendor at O'Hare airport, all of this feels way too long, without much detail to keep us going. That lack of something works for Cusack, but not for everything else. The job becomes overwhelming to the driver only toward the end, but before that, what can we latch on to? There are stretches of minutes where it's not unusual to feel as the driver does, bored with his fares in the backseat, wondering if the day will somehow get better.

For the driver, that's fine, but in watching a movie, that's not how one should feel. The truth that's arrived at towards the end at least comes without the burden of stringy, treacly music designed to make us feel more than what's actually there. Is this really what we waited for though? A message that we might hear anyway with each Christmas that comes? The driver can't reach these people, and he doesn't like to be touched, as he snaps twice at two people who do so either as a reflex or because they want him. But we should be. Where is that something that's supposed to trip a circuit alive in us? It's not here. It's in the actors, but not in the writing.


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