Taxi Driver (1976)
Release Date: February 8th, 1976 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Martin Scorsese Actors: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd
s with most of Martin Scorsese’s award-winning films, “Taxi Driver” deals with appalling violence, literal filth, ethical decay, and New York City. It’s mostly ugly, disturbing, and underworld-exposing, but this film has a certain hypnotic beauty to it, which peeks through when witnessing it as a whole (its pieces independently might be unwatchable) – a compelling story that features general unattractiveness, including an unhinged lead protagonist, purified by a spontaneous act of sacrifice and altruism (even though it’s deluded by insanity). The main character is an absolute antihero, capable of good and evil and all manner of questionable routines, but it’s his barbarous final act of redemption that is most enthralling – made more complex by the imposition of a haywire moral compass the viewer cannot ignore.
26 year-old, honorably discharged Vietnam veteran and ex-Marine Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) can’t sleep at night. He picks up a job as a taxi driver in New York, narrating (in film noir mode) the activities in his lower class life: the odd assortment of fare he picks up, the dirt he cleans from his cab, the wages he makes, the pornography he watches theatrically, the insomnia he suffers, and his idea of purpose – or the lack thereof. He struggles to discover his place in society, but he’s nevertheless determined he has something significant in his future.
Bickle also keeps a journal of his activities, documenting when he spies a beautiful young blonde, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who works on a senator’s campaign. He’s infatuated, but doesn’t quite know how to approach her. When he summons the courage, he walks right up to her and tells her she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, and asks her out for coffee and pie. Not completely without charm, his advance is a success. Their date is a little interrogative, and Travis begins to show his unnerving side, but Betsy agrees, hesitantly, to continue seeing him.
When he takes her to an adult movie, she realizes he’s a bit uncultured and leaves abruptly. The rejection is too much for Travis to take, and he undergoes severe mental deterioration – a breakdown that leads to the realization of his monotonous subsistence, his isolation from decency and humanity, failed attempts at positive human contact, and a newfound destructive goal: to assassinate Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris). It’s an act he believes will start a revolution, but it’s based on anger, jealousy, and growing psychosis. His training for the attack leads to the often quoted “You talkin’ to me?” speech in front of a mirror, as he rehearses the looming confrontation with his target. From here, “Taxi Driver” continues to feature shocking imagery, including Bickle’s ragged mohawk and his explosive final showdown. It’s not until he meets a pimp called Matthew (Harvey Keitel) and his underage prostitute Iris Steensman (Jodie Foster), that he envisions a real use for his existence.
The rain can wash away the garbage and trash from the streets, but not what has corrupted the minds and motives of those inhabiting them. Travis sees the grime and wants the city cleaned up, but is duped into thinking that the only way he can make a difference is by radical methods – excessiveness that will be ultimately inconsequential to his environment. There is no cure, least of all for the cab driver, who can be a monster one minute and a hero the next as he attempts to reintegrate into, then ruin, and finally rehabilitate his environment.
Outside of Betsy, there are really no likeable characters – merely varying degrees of repulsiveness (even Scorsese’s cameo is that of a murderer). It’s the kind of movie that takes an emotional investment to stick with the protagonist through to his eventual, skewed redemption, which delivers a perversely entertaining catharsis. Unlike “Raging Bull’s” Jake La Motta, Bickle actually delivers atonement, made more symbolic and drastic due to the harshness of the situations. Despite bluesy saxophone music that is memorable but oftentimes intrusive, “Taxi Driver” is a dark, powerful, stylized, potent production that takes the viewer deeper into a persona of insanity and alienation than many will want to go. It did, however, win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976, while also garnering four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. But it’s still certainly not for everyone.
– Mike Massie