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Non-Review Review: Collateral

Collateral is a masterpiece. I think the only Michael Mann movie I’d rate against it would be Heat, which puts it in very good company. It’s probably my favourite neo-noir film, and I actually ranked it as my favourite film of 2000-2009. There are a lot of reasons for that: I think it’s the best example of digital video cinematography I’ve ever seen, the script is superb, the two leads are fantastic and it’s an utterly compelling examination of urban isolation. The screenplay was originally set in Manhattan, but I think the decision to transpose the story of a cabbie and his client to Los Angeles was actually quite clever – there’s generally an eerie emptiness and anomie to how life in Los Angeles is portrayed, and Collateral captures it perfectly.

Top gun...

The hook is a fascinating one. It’s easy to imagine the film could easily be translated to the stage, so simple is the high concept at its core. A man gets into a taxi cab. These are two people who have never met one another before. Spending the night driving around town together, the two come to know each other in a bizarre form of intimacy. There’s something quite sad in that idea, the anonymity of big city living and the idea that neither Max nor Vincent has anybody closer they can really talk to. It’s telling that this is perhaps the closest they can get to another person, despite being divided by a customer-client relationship, knowing nothing of one another and a physical plastic barrier between the front and back seats.

“First time in L.A.?” Max asks his fare. Vincent replies, “No. Tell you the truth, whenever I’m here I can’t wait to leave. It’s too sprawled out, disconnected. You know? That’s me.” He asks Max, “You like it?” Max doesn’t answer one way or the other, and sort of fobs the question off, “It’s my home.” Vincent continues with his commentary on the city, “17 million people. This is got to be the fifth biggest economy in the world and nobody knows each other. I read about this guy who gets on the MTA here, dies. Six hours he’s riding the subway before anybody notices his corpse doing laps around L.A., people on and off sitting next to him. Nobody notices.”

Backseat driver...

It’s a powerful image, and it’s appropriate that film returns to it at the climax. There is something slightly numbing about big city living. Shot at night mostly on digital video, Mann captures the somewhat shining beauty of the architecture. Los Angeles’ relatively few skyscrapers are full of speckled dots of light, busy and anonymous office staff working late and providing a nice ambient backdrop for the City of Angeles. Digital filming allowed Mann to film more at night, and to portray it better than he would otherwise. There’s an ambient light to the city at night, even in the darkest and slimiest corners. It’s this strange low light that doesn’t seem to come from anywhere, even though it must come from porch lights and windows and street lamps.

It’s interesting how people relate to the world and to one another. When Vincent reveals his dark secret to Max, Max is horrified to be driving around an assassin. Vincent is keen to jump on the alleged hypocritical attitude Max has adopted, being outraged at the death a man he didn’t know. “What do you care? Have you ever heard of Rwanda?” he demands of Max. “Well, tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?”

Evading a trained killer...

The suggestion is that somehow death is only offensive when it happens to people we are directly aware of, or who we might interact with. If that is the case, Mann suggests, then the city is a very dangerous environment. After all, if we only care about the people we know, how risky must it be to live in a city where nobody knows anybody?

Later on, Max has a breakdown when Vincent kills another person. At this point, Vincent has killed at least a dozen people, but the last victim sends Max into a spiral of depression. It wasn’t even that Max recognised the victim, it was that Max had spoken to this victim and had even learned the poor guy’s name. In return, the poor guy had been willing to listen to Max’s crazy story about the psychotic killer in his backseat. “I shoulda saved him ’cause he believed you…?” Vincent asks. “No,” Max replies, “not just that.” Vincent isn’t convinced. “Yeah, that…”

A rest stop...

While Vincent is a sociopath, he has a point. Max might not be happy to be an accomplice in this violence, he does seem to be able to cope with the deaths of anonymous individuals. He is only spurred to take a stand when Vincent kills people he has, in some small way, come to know. Vincent might be a little heavy on his nihilism, but it’s depressing how accurately he seems to read people. “Get with it,” he tells Max towards the climax. “Millions of galaxies of hundreds of millions of stars, and a speck on one in a blink. That’s us, lost in space. The cop, you, me… Who notices?” It’s implied that this sort of thing is Vincent’s modus operandi, which suggests that it generally works.

While Max might eventually be able to rebuke Vincent’s cold and bitter observations on the social disconnect and the isolated nature of human existence, it’s only after quite a while, and he is probably only the first. While Vincent is finally wrong, the movie dares to suggest that he has been right in the past. Of course, Vincent’s moral philosophy is some attempt at shallow self-justification. It’s implied that he was an abused child, and that he’s a former military professional who now sells his services to the higher bidder. As much as he might attempt to generalise from his own experiences, he is fundamentally broken.

A pleasant Cruise?

“What’s with you?” Max asks, as he tries to understand how Vincent’s thought processes might work. “As in if somebody had a gun to your head and said: “You gotta tell me what’s going on with this person over here or I’m gonna kill you. What is driving him? What was he thinking?” You know, you couldn’t do it, could you, because… They’d have to kill your ass because you don’t know what anyone else is thinking. I think you’re low, my brother. Way low. Like, what were you? One of those institutionalized raised guys? Anyone home? The standard parts that are supposed to be there in people, in you… aren’t.”

We can’t trust anything that Vincent says over the course of the film. He’s trapped in lies quite a few times by Max, telling the cab driver what he wants to hear in order to get him to cooperate. Michael Mann has confirmed that the story about Vincent’s childhood represents a rare moment of honesty from the character, but it doesn’t excuse anything and everything about Vincent. Vincent is lacking in that fundamental human empathy, and Collateral works as a film because it examines how brutally and efficiently he can exploit a world that is so isolated and so lacking in empathy.

Driven to the Max...

Nobody knows anything. Vincent originally claims that he’s killing bad people. When he’s caught in the lie, Max demands, “Then what’d they do?” Vincent replies, “How do I know, you know?” He’s just a man doing a job. There is literally nothing personal going on here. It’s an interaction that isn’t meant to be personal, just professional. Like a man catching a taxi. And yet Vincent and Max seem so starved for any meaningful human connection that they toy with the limits and boundaries of those roles.

Max and Vincent bond as two people rather than a client and a cab driver, just as Vincent inserts himself into Daniel’s life, having the most personal of interactions and sharing memories like old friends. It might be part of the act, and he might be willing to do what he needs to do in order to collect his earnings and to finish his job, but it almost seems like – on some subconscious level – Vincent yearns for that type of inter-personal relationship.

All Fed up...

The two central performances are absolutely fantastic. Jamie Foxx picked up a deserved Oscar nomination for playing the put-upon cabbie Max. However, it’s Tom Cruise as Vincent who doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Despite the attention that some of his off-screen antics may attract, I am convinced that Tom Cruise is easily one of the best actors of his generation. He just rarely gets a chance to show it off, and I’d argue that Vincent is his finest creation. As Vincent, Cruise is charming and engaging, but also utterly ruthless and brutal. It brilliantly subverts the expectations we’ve had of the actor after watching him play those engaging leading characters for so long. I think it is a genuine shame that Cruise did not pick up an Oscar nomination (and, in my own opinion, a win) for his work here.

Mann constructs the film brilliantly. The director has used digital video on his films since, Miami Vice and Public Enemies. While I’m fonder of the former than most, there’s no denying that the format doesn’t fit nearly as well as it does here. I suspect a large part of that is that Mann seems more willing to compromise here than in later films. For brightly-lit shots, the director used film because it reacted to the conditions better. It allows Mann to capture the best of both worlds, using the format best suited to his needs at a particular moment.

Reflecting on LA...

I have to admit that I’m also quite fond of the director’s decision to reserve James Newton Howard’s pounding soundtrack until the final twenty minutes of the film, which is a nice touch. Despite its rather hefty subject matter, and the brutality with which Mann handles (he actually introduces a major supporting character so he can brutally kill him off with no real warning), he allows Collateral something akin to optimism in its final few minutes, as Max finds the will to oppose Vincent’s sophisticated nihilism. Appropriately, Mann uses Howard’s score as an effective call-to-arms for that powerful final confrontation, and I think it works really well.

Collateral is a masterpiece, a stunningly effective neo-noir thriller that broaches some powerful questions about the anomie of big-city living. Featuring two phenomenal central performances and an amazing director at the peak of his abilities, I think it’s nothing short of a modern classic.

6 Responses

  1. Great write-up! I agree with much of what you say. Foxx and Cruise are great and the early scenes in the taxi are brilliant, suspenseful and tightly written. But for me the film went down hill with the cat and mouse antics at the end. It’s a shame as I loved the first half and just expected a little more from the ending.

    • I don’t know. I think the ending worked quite well. This is Los Angeles, a city where everybody is so isolated that two men can have a heated gun battle without drawing the cops or any real attention. The city keeps on moving, the train doesn’t stop.

  2. I thought I was alone in thinking that Collateral is a bona fide masterpiece. In my world Tom Cruise wins Oscar for that performance. Superb job capturing the nuances of that film, Darren.

  3. Great read. We watched for the fourth or fifth time tonight and I was stunned at just how great a film it is. Part buddy flick, part Stockholm syndrome, part stalker/thriller, part glitzed out forelorn rock video, grit, mystery, fantastic dialog and storytelling and a whole lot of twists and turns. . . All amidst a backdrop of seizing one’s own destiny in a truly existential and lonely world that doesn’t care about you and your excuses…..

    Simply brilliant.

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