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Categories: Movie Reviews

40 years on, the gritty psychological thriller retains its affecting realism.

taxi-driver

With the film celebrating its 40th Anniversary earlier this year and with Martin Scorsese returning to the 70s with HBO’s Vinyl, now is as good a time as any to look back on 1976’s Taxi Driver, the fifth film by Scorsese, his second collaboration with Robert De Niro and, arguably, the best work both of them have ever produced. [Note: plot spoilers ahead.]

The film is notable for its unapologetically bleak and violent outlook on the American lifestyle in the years following Vietnam. When protagonist Travis Bickle, an honourably-discharged Marine, takes up the graveyard shift of a New York Taxi service, he initially does so as to have something other than late-night pornography to keep his mind off his insomnia. Instead, the seedy prostitutes and dysfunctional sleaze that wash through the city only heighten his growing depression and violent thoughts, sending him on a self-destructive path where redemption is not only uncertain, but unwelcome. 

Part of why the film has remained a classic of cinema for so many years is that timeless cynicism; Travis sees himself as God’s Lonely Man, a figure cursed with the gift of sight. He sees the city for what it truly is: a wretched hive of scum and villainy. His taxi is a vessel for the depraved and the damned to travel from one debauchery to the next, transporting everyone from jealous husbands talking about “what a .44 Magnum will do to a woman’s pussy” to politicians giving half-truths about their non-existent plans to clean up the streets.

Travis lives among the classic cases of psychologically-broken characters, bringing to the 70s what Holden Caulfield did to the 50s and what Donnie Darko did to the early 2000s, a character who understands the world on a more intense level than the rest of society, but at the cost of their own sanity.

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De Niro’s performance has remained one of his best, if not his altogether best ever work. From the start, it’s clear that Travis is flirting with madness, teetering on the edges waiting for an excuse to fall. What’s less clear is how he perceives that madness to himself; Travis is a very lonely man but it’s strongly suggested that he’s subconsciously bringing that loneliness onto himself, acting awkward around other people and appearing distant to anyone that gets too close.

The one person he allows himself to get close to is political campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a figure of clean in this world of grim, but he screws that up by taking her to a porno theatre on their first date. It’s left ambiguous whether Travis just made a simple mistake brought on by his lack of social interactions, or whether he subconsciously sabotaged the relationship, corrupting his view of Betsy so as to add to his ever-growing hatred of the world.

Travis is the definition of a human car crash, horrible to watch but impossible to turn away from. He’s a violence-obsessed sociopath that believes what he’s doing will save New York. He honestly and truthfully believes in what he’s doing, and that is the scariest part of all, that Bickle doesn’t see the wrong in his actions and will keep going to wash the streets clean. The film might end in his favour this time, but as the darkly interoperated ending hints at, next time there might not be as much in the way of heroics. Travis is a powerful character who makes just as much of an impact in today’s society as he did back when this film was released, and it remains one of De Niro’s most iconic performances for good reason.

It’s perhaps Jodie Foster’s Iris that ends up being the final nail in Travis’ coffin. A 12-year-old prostitute, Foster plays Iris with a mature confidence despite her age; she knows what she’s doing and she knows the illegal nature of it, but she doesn’t care because she doesn’t have any other option – she’s gotten use to the lifestyle and made herself comfortable. The young age of Iris is something that still shocks to this day, but it makes sense. She is, in essence, a child, a symbol of innocence that has been corrupted by external forces.

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Despite her maturity and her apparent comfort in this life of sin and misery, Travis feels the need to save her as a way to save his own soul, if nothing else. It’s the angle that Iris doesn’t openly want or need saving that turns Travis’ heroic last stand into something darker and more sinister, feeding his own vigilante desires in the guise of saving a young girl from her own depraved lifestyle, fully embracing his own madness in what he believes in his last act on earth. Ironically enough, the fact that Travis survives and is hailed as a hero by the society he holds so much contempt for only serves to add to the belief that the city is the real madness and Travis has simply been accepted by it, for better or worse.

The direction mirrors Travis’ own outlook; Scorsese obviously knows New York, and more than that he knows the ugly side of it that most people either haven’t seen or just blatantly ignore. Working with writer/director Paul Schrader, he helped turn the glamorous New York into a seedy underbelly of crime and scum, punctuated by a sleazy, sickening and borderline iconic score from famed composer Bernard Herrman – his last before his death.

From the very first shot of a bright yellow Taxi Cab bellowing out through the steamy streets to the blood-soaked and brutal finale shootout, this is a film that not only embraces its ugliness, but revels in it. It enjoys every filthy second it spends in the gutters, taking the audience through this encrusted Hell of blood and crap and cum and piss. It’s an ugly movie that leaves the viewer as disgusted and disturbed as Travis by the end of it.

The beauty of Scorsese’s direction is that he makes this ugliness appear so easily on screen. For a film set in New York we barely – if ever – see any of the upper-class landmarks; there’s no Central Park, no Statue of Liberty, nothing except these cold, hard, horrid streets. This is the side of New York where sex and violence are commonplace and often interchangeable with each other, a side where pimps and prostitutes run rampant amongst the porno theatres and the streets that literally sweat from the heat.

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If you leave Taxi Driver without that repulsive sweat dripping down the back of your neck, you’re stronger than most. It’s almost ironic that for as crazed and dangerous as Travis is shown to be, the film does an excellent job at showing how and why Travis is revolted by the streets he has to drive down each and every night for 12 hours. It’s enough to drive any man to madness.

The loneliness Travis suffers from also takes centre stage. He makes sure that for the vast majority of the time we see Travis he’s on his own, practising his gun techniques in preparation for his fabled ‘Great Flood’. it’s in these moments where we see Travis at his most real, his most dangerous, not just for the guns but for his sheer desperation for human interaction, to the point where he actually talks to himself in the mirror because he’s that lonely. The whole ‘you talking to me?’ scene isn’t just an iconic bad-ass line – it’s a declaration of isolation and insanity.

For the very few scenes where Travis actually spends time with other people, Scorsese never loses sight of Bickle’s loneliness. There are few points in the film where Travis shares the shot with another person, even when they’re in the same place talking to one another. Travis is always shown on his own, separated from the world even when he’s a part of it, a psychological cue to show the audience just how out-of-touch Travis is from the rest of the world. It’s a subtle but highly effective touch since it constantly reinforces the notion of Travis’ awkward and difficult personality without having him be awkward or difficult onscreen.

Taxi Driver is 40 years old and yet it still packs a punch today. It’s a tale of loneliness, depression, violence, sex, depravity and corruption, all surrounding the man who never sleeps in the city that never sleeps. Others may argue in favor of Raging Bull for its physical intensity and poetic fighting, but Taxi Driver holds a more honest place in the cinematic landscape. Travis Bickle is an icon because he could be absolutely anyone, anyone who becomes so disenfranchised with the madness of society that they build their own madness to combat it, the irony being that that madness brings the two of them closer together.

Perhaps it’s that horrifying realism that has made the film last so long.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

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Posted on Mar 7, 2016

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