Reflections on "Collateral" (2004)

Directed by Michael Mann

Written by Stuart Beattie

Starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

Although "Collateral" works perfectly well as an entertaining neo-noir suspense film, I am firmly of the opinion that our appreciation of the film is enhanced if it is also viewed as an existential thriller offering an intriguing representation of the conflict between existential humanity and nihilism, with Max and Vincent embodying these two viewpoints.

Max is a taxi driver and, in keeping with the principles of existentialism, he is keen to do his best to avoid negative impact on clients within his sphere of control and his working environment. He is fastidious, polite, helpful, respectful, thoughtful and resolutely honest. He takes pride in his work and he is independent and insular - when he closes his taxi door, he leaves behind the outside world and assumes responsibility for the service he provides to his clients. This is a professional service and there is little personal or meaningful engagement with clients as both driver and client are using one another for their mutual benefit, perhaps reflecting commercial and social interaction in society in general as we all contribute to society by offering services others can use without necessarily becoming involved in one another's lives.

Max's profession also incorporates the element of existential chance. He never knows who he will meet or where his encounters will take him and he generally remains fairly detached as he goes about his business.

However, after randomly picking up a fare, a lawyer named Annie, Max strikes up a conversation that leads to interest, empathy and engagement. Annie expresses social and professional anxiety which strikes a chord with Max and he offers words of comfort and advice while sharing his own thoughts and ambitions for the future. He reveals his strategy for coping with stress, which consists of contemplating a postcard of a rather symbolic island destination at times when he feels under pressure, tantamount to a form of meditation, and he insists on giving the card to Annie as her need is greater than his. He also discusses his idealistic plans for a limo hire company, aptly named Island Limos. Both Max and Annie are comforted by their encounter but neither seems willing or able to go from engagement to involvement.

We learn a lot about each of these characters in the course of their conversation but also, perhaps, about the place of the thoughtful individual in a career-driven society in which professional pressures to comply and achieve are almost unbearable and personal relationships are tentative and to be approached with caution and perhaps even apprehension.

Max's next fare will provide a stark contrast in attitude and will present life-changing challenges to Max and his outlook on life.

Once again underlining the role of chance and the impact of random choices on our lives, Vincent approaches Max for a ride and is ready to walk on to another cab when Max appears to ignore him, but Max calls him back and apologises for his reverie, clearly wishing to do his best for a potential client.

Max and Vincent chat pleasantly enough and their conversation is vaguely similar to the one Max has just had with Annie but it remains business-like and lacks engagement. Vincent is purposeful, confident, sociably curious and pleasant enough but he does not display the sympathy and empathy we witnessed in Max's conversation with Annie. Vincent questions Max astutely about his career and Max reveals his dream plans for a limo company have been in the works for some twelve years, casting doubt on the probability of them coming to fruition. Vincent has thus gleaned the reality rather than the romanticised version shared with Annie. Vincent is intelligent, cunning and calculating as he gauges Max's character and situation while apparently engaging in meaningless chat.

Vincent explains he has a series of five meetings to attend through the night and invites Max to take him to his various destinations. Max is reluctant as this breaks company policy but Vincent tempts him to break the rules by offering him money and alluding to his ambitions. Vincent has gathered background information and has shown an ability to read character, allowing him to manipulate Max to suit his own ends. We shall also discover in the course of an argument he has with Max's boss that he has a masterful knowledge and understanding of rules, regulations and perhaps propriety, and while he has no respect for any of them, he displays the same talent for interpretation and manipulation of rules and as he did for reading character. He is thus willing and able to engineer situations and steer people who are compliant with traditional values and codes of conduct.

It transpires that Vincent has taken the ultimate step in terms of his lack of respect for traditional values and morality as he is, he reveals, a hitman and as such he presents, perhaps, the supreme expression of existential freedom in the form of nihilism. In the course of several philosophical conversations he has with Max, Vincent upholds the theories of chaos and amorality by suggesting there are no good reasons for anything, there is no grand scheme and we are all totally insignificant. He also affirms that those he kills probably deserve their fates but in any case he remains detached and coldly feels no guilt for his actions as he reduces everything to mere mechanical cause and effect, deductively concluding that while he fired a gun at his first victim of the night, it was the bullets and then the fall from an upper floor, for which he claims his victim was responsible, that killed him.

When Vincent's first victim (of his five targets) falls on to Max's taxi, again quite by chance, the impact affects not just the car but also Max's life and outlook. Max is a man who does his best to fulfil his duties while diligently avoiding unnecessary involvement or participation in the lives and actions of others, yet he is now quite directly embroiled in murder and mayhem.

Vincent will force Max to become increasingly involved in his schemes, eventually compelling Max to abandon his neutrality, take a stance and act in accordance with his values.

Max is tethered to the steering wheel of his car in a side street while Vincent goes to dispatch his second victim and the dim view of human nature represented by Vincent is reinforced by the attitude and actions of passers-by who, drawn by Max's efforts to attract attention, threaten Max and steal Vincent's briefcase which contains equipment and information relating to his intended victims. Vincent arrives and turns the thieves' own standard of morality on them, albeit taken to the extreme, as he cold-bloodedly shoots them in the street. Interestingly, Vincent tries to persuade Max that he is responsible for their deaths through his actions as he should have known how he, Vincent, would react. He clearly regards himself as an immutable force of nature bound to follow his path without question or doubt, while he regards Max's humanity as a weakness, and one to be exploited.

Max is drawn more deeply into Vincent's activities when he witnesses the murder of Vincent's third victim close up and he struggles to cope with what he sees, applying his familiar code of morality, honour and truth, only to be told by Vincent that these things do not exist.

Threat is made personal and immediate when Max and Vincent visit Max's mother in hospital. Vincent attempts to manipulate the situation but Max realises he must take action if he is to prevent Vincent from taking more lives. However, he cannot bring himself to cause harm to Vincent, so instead seizes his briefcase which contains his instructions, and destroys it and them.

Vincent must seek another copy of his mission documents from his employer and Max takes another step from neutrality toward participation when he is forced to play the part of Vincent and collect Vincent's papers. Although he is initially ill at ease in his interview, when he realises he has nothing to lose as his very survival is in doubt, he takes on Vincent's persona, adopts his attitude and repeats some of the ideas and words Vincent has used when speaking to him. In so doing, this frightened and careful man is briefly liberated and empowered as he feigns freedom from moral constraint and he obtains the information required, but he is also starting to gain the confidence, conviction and strength to act, as himself.

At a night club we witness the full impact of Vincent's nihilism as he shoots more or less indiscriminately, causing numerous random deaths on top of the calculated and professional killings of his opponents, in an attempt to complete this part of his mission, as the police close in on him. Vincent saves Max's life when he shoots a gunman about to fire on Max, and he kills a policeman who tries to lead Max to safety. He claims he did this because Max is good at what he does and they're in this together but it is possible that, just as Max is being influenced by Vincent's moral vacuum, Vincent has been touched, even if only slightly, by Max's humanity and he wants to protect him, even if only to serve his own purposes.

However, the chaotic killing in the night club and the death of the policeman, combined with a beautifully constructed philosophical discussion with Vincent as they flee (in which Max confronts some home truths and comes to doubt the value and point of his own life), push Max over the edge and into the realm of action. He throws caution aside, drives his car at high speed and initiates a potentially lethal crash, leaving their combined destinies to fate.

Both survive and Vincent heads off to fulfil his contract by killing Annie who is due to launch a high-level prosecution the following day. When Max realises who Vincent's final victim is to be, he sets off to warn and protect her.

There is an elaborate, exciting and suspenseful chase sequence which also incorporates several elements of chance, but the upshot is that Max takes action. He overcomes his fear in the face of Annie's imminent demise and sets out to participate, however reluctantly, in whatever action is necessary to protect Annie, ending in a showdown with Vincent, a conflict Max wins largely by chance.

Fatally wounded in an underground carriage, with his dying breaths Vincent recalls a story of death on the metro he recounted earlier to Max, a sad and haunting tale that accentuated the insignificance of our lives, and in so doing he actually manages to add a touch of pathos to the end of our nihilistic hitman.

Set in the harsh, cold beauty of the cityscape of Los Angeles, whose myriad of roads may represent the continual random crossing of human lifepaths, the action takes place largely during the night, suggesting darkness of intent and lack of clarity, both visually and morally. It is no accident, then, that at the end Max and Annie head toward the rising sun whose light lends clarity and hope for the future.

This clash between nihilism and existential humanity is captured in a richly detailed and literate script by Stuart Beattie and directed with pace and attention to mood and atmosphere by Michael Mann. It presents philosophical opposition and argument yet it is intrinsically human and engaging.

In terms of performance, I thought all involved acquitted themselves admirably but Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise did remarkably well and lent thought, depth and authenticity to their roles.

The film performed well at the box office on its release and it carries very respectable scores on review sites, yet it seems to have passed largely into obscurity, a fate this highly engaging, thought-provoking and richly observant film certainly does not deserve.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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