Not all Christmases are merry and bright, and not all Christmas movies need to be either. For that first Christmas after the death of a parent or a partner or a sibling or a child, for the one after the devastating divorce or breakup, for the Christmas of illness or exile or addiction, there’s no more perfect movie than Chicago Cab (1997)—especially if you’re spending that Christmas in Chicago. The movie isn’t available on streaming services, but you can find a DVD on Amazon or at the public library or unlicensed recordings kicking around online.

The premise of the movie, based on Will Kern’s 1995 play Hellcab, is a day in the life of a Chicago cab driver (Paul Dillon). And not just any day, the shortest day of the year, December 21—which of course is only short on light. Throughout its 96 minutes we’re treated to a bevy of cameos from the likes of Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Gillian Anderson, John Cusack, Michael Shannon, Laurie Metcalf, and more than two dozen others portraying passengers of the cab from a few seconds to a few minutes at a time. If your own life isn’t proof enough of the correctness of Jean-Paul Sartre’s observation that “hell is other people,” the cabbie’s experience is sure to convince you.

The day starts and ends in darkness. The cabbie’s very first passengers are religious zealots going to church before dawn on a Thursday with their bratty kid. These people have a weird energy, and the car fills with tension as they try to pressure the cabbie to join them. From there the cabbie is interminably harassed about his driving by pissed off people in a hurry, demeaned by white collar passengers, swindled by crackheads and creeps, propositioned by older women, lambasted by New Yorkers, and confronted with just how ugly and mean people can be all the while trying to keep his cool and earn his pay. The day takes him far and wide across the city, snippets of late-90s Chicago making short appearances alongside the eclectic cast. Christmas is just in the background. People shuffle in and out of the cab with bags of presents. The cabbie snacks on a candy cane. Someone annoyingly sings “O Tannenbaum.” Over the course of the film we gather that the cabbie isn’t a family man but a single working guy from Rockford. It’s clear this time of year isn’t offering a respite from the grind of his job, nor does it exempt others from tragedy.

The film doesn’t have much of a plot and is propelled solely by the quick succession of characters, all of whom are vividly performed and immediately captivating. It’s a pleasure to watch because every scene is a surprise with no context, no before or after, just a series of tableaus. It’s not even clear whether there’s any great lesson or logic about it all for the cabbie, who, as anyone who’s ever worked in a service job knows, is just trying to survive each interaction with his sanity intact. At the end, though, there is a moment of clarity, a piece of crinkled, reused ribbon to tie a good-enough bow. Is there a point to all the pain and suffering the cabbie has endured and witnessed all day? Not really. But the spirit of Christmas makes an appearance—not in the form of jollyness or hope or cheer, but in the form of grace. After all, it’s not the commercial signifiers of Christmas that make this season special but the generosity of spirit people become a little more likely to perform.   v