Taxi Driver (1976) Director: Martin Scorsese
“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Well, then who the hell else are you talking – You talking to me? Well, I’m the only one here.“
In a depraved, morally ambiguous, post-Vietnam War New York City we are introduced to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a veteran suffering from PTSD. He is isolated, lonely, empty, likely racist, and an insomniac -he visits porn shops and takes a job driving a taxi. We see him perhaps akin to a Holden Caulfield-esque character. Everywhere he goes in a busy world of urban decay he is surrounded by people but fundamentally he is alone. An odd mix of passengers ride in his taxi, including Director Martin Scorsese himself, who plays a vengeful husband planning to kill his wife. Travis also meets a charismatic politician named Senator Palantine, and a child prostitute named Iris (played by a young Jodie Foster in her cinematic debut). Much of our knowledge of Travis’s inner monologue is derived from his simple, almost childlike journal entries. He grows infatuated with a campaign worker who works for Senator Palantine named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), but Travis lacks the charm and grace to successfully woo Betsy. Travis takes her on a date to a pornographic movie but she quickly leaves in disgust. This causes Travis to descend into a downward spiral.
Much of the film is a hypnotic blur containing Western, Mobster, Horror, and Noir themes. Travis is often only one small mirror or glass wall between madness and civilization. Scriptwriter Paul Schrader based the story on the diaries and assassination attempts of Arthur Bremmer against Democratic Presidential Candidate George Wallace, as well as Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. Scorsese has said much of Taxi Driver was inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers, in particular John Wayne’s character of “Ethan Edwards.” Like Ethan, Travis has a confused sense of heroism and masculinity. Betsy is portrayed as an honorable and legitimate woman -she becomes the subject of his idolatry, while in Travis’s mind she is contrasted with Iris who is an impure prostitute. However, Travis is incapable of purifying the grim world around him so he becomes the hero of his own fantasy.
Travis begins an intense physical training regimen, and buys an arsenal of guns on the black market. He shaves his head into a mohawk and plans to assassinate Senator Palantine in an unhinged attempt to exact revenge on Betsy, but he is quickly spooked by the presence of secret service, so he instead pays a visit to the brothel where Iris works and he brutally executes everyone except Iris in a shocking bloodbath. During the course of the violence he is shot several times and the camera pans to an overhead view while Travis slumps down on the couch. He makes a mocking motion, as if pretending to shoot himself in the head.
In the end, Travis is praised as a hero -the vigilante rescuer of a child prostitute. Some, like Roger Ebert, have suggested the ending is a mere fantasy in Travis’s head, however Scorsese and Schrader have denied this theory. In the scene we see Travis pick up Betsy again in his taxi and he gives her a free ride. She appears ethereal through the reflection in the rearview mirror. Now, she respects Travis because she has heard about his rescue efforts of Iris. Betsy thanks Travis for his heroic deed before he calmly drives away but his mania soon takes over again. He obsessively starts peering into his rearview mirror as she walks away. We are led to believe Travis will commit another mad act of violence again, though for now he has found redemption.
I can appreciate Taxi Driver for its extraordinary qualities, it is impeccably shot and De Niro delivers a now-legendary performance, however it is also a somewhat jaded albeit intellectual film that chooses to highlight the seedier, violent, pornographic elements of society. Taxi Driver is fertile ground for inquiry, yet it seems to leave the audience in an austere, desensitized state. Nevertheless Taxi Driver is one of the great first-person character studies ever committed to film. And the score by Bernard Herrmann, the last before his death, is absolutely perfect.