A film review by Craig J. Koban
RANK: # 1
30th Anniversary Retrospective
1976, R, 112 mins.
Robert De Niro / Iris:
Jodie Foster / Sport:
Harvey Keitel / Betsy: Cybill Shepherd / Tom:
Albert Brooks / Wizard:
"Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man.”
Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER
There is an infamous moment in Martin Scorsese’s masterful TAXI DRIVER – one of the greatest of all films – that flawlessly cuts to the heart of its character.
It’s a brief moment where Travis Bickle is preparing himself to embark on a mission to assassinate a presidential candidate. He has trained his body, but it is his mind that is an emotional and moral void. As he postures himself in front of a large wall mirror, cocking his .357 Magnum like he was a wild west gunslinger, he looks at himself and says, “You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here.”
It remains, to this day, one of the cinema’s most memorable and chilling moments. The creative inception of the exchange that the character has with himself is almost as legendary as the scene. Most film scholars agree that it was a brilliant bit of improvisational acting on the then young Robert DeNiro. Others have wisely pointed out that Bickle may have been emulating a famous exchange from the 1953 western SHANE, where Alan Ladd and Ben Johnson share very similar words before a bar room brawl.
Perhaps Bickle sees himself as an old school enforcer of the law, a heroic figure of yesteryear that took the law into his own hands and spins it into a world view altogether his own. Nevertheless, the final line he utters nails the tortured inner catharsis that the persona feels - “I’m the only one here.” For Bickle, he lives a desperate and lonely existence in a world that sickens him with its depravity. All attempts on his part to connect with both the world and the people that occupy it have failed miserably. In his mind, he will cleanse it.
That’s the heart of TAXI DRIVER, which contains - for my money - the most stirring and unsettling portrait of young male angst, inner desolation, solitude, and despair that I have ever seen. It also has the foresight to take subtle jabs at the world and times that it’s main character lives in. Bickle is one of the more atypical anti-heroes ever presented on film. He starts off essentially on a level of normal-mindedness. He has problems that many of us, no doubt, have had in our lifetimes. This is what makes him a somewhat sympathetic figure.
However, the difference with Bickle is that he lets his solitude and growing moral ambivalence cloud his sense of right and wrong. If he had been quicker, his city would have labeled him as a brutal, remorseless killer if he did succeed in killing the presidential candidate. However, Bickle is labeled as a hero after he has dispensed with a pimp at the film’s conclusion. It’s an ironic and disturbing end to his story. The society he despises thinks the world of him. Kill a politician and you’re a barbarian. Kill a hustler and you’re a saint. The hero worship that the world has for Bickle at the end only feeds his delusions of grandeur. God help him for what he may do next.
TAXI DRIVER goes high on my list of films that command and deserve repeated viewings. It achieves this primarily through the complexity and strength of its psychological profile of a seemingly ordinary guy that turns into a real whack job. The screenplay was written by Paul Schrader, who would later re-team with Scorsese on more memorable projects like RAGING BULL, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD. Schrader is able to tap into the mindset of his characters better than just about any other modern screenwriter. The reason TAXI DRIVER resonates so powerfully with viewers is in how we emotionally relate to Bickle, even while he is descending into a moral abyss. This also allows for the film to be that much more depraved and terrifying as a result. Travis Bickle is a sociopath that feels real.
The journey to writing the script could have almost made a decent movie in its own right. Having written the script in only five days, Schrader was inspired firstly by the published diary of Arthur Bremer, the man that was convicted of shooting presidential hopeful George Wallace. More significantly, Schrader recounts (in a recent special edition DVD for the film) that the real inspiration for the film was from his own past. The story was partially autobiographical. Schrader himself suffered a nervous breakdown when he first moved to Los Angeles. As a result, he became emotionally distant and increasingly isolated from the outside world. He literally did not talk to anyone for months, went to porno theatres, and developed an obsession with guns of all sorts. Using his own tortured experiences, Schrader put his ideas on paper, changed the locale from L.A. to New York, and TAXI DRIVER was the result. DeNiro and Scorsese read the screenplay and loved it. A film classic in the making was born.
It could also be said that Schrader further found film inspiration from John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS. When I first saw TAXI DRIVER in my senior year of high school I never perceived the similarities. Now, after having seen THE SEARCHERS a few more times recently, the comparisons feel that much more pervasive. The dynamic in both films are incredibly analogous. In the SEARCHERS John Wayne played a bigoted and violent social outcast that obsessively takes it upon himself to save a young girl (his niece) who is being held captive by a Native tribe. Wayne in the film suffers from one fateful flaw – he lets his anger and hostility towards Indians fuel his rage, not to mention his yearning to “save” his niece. What he fails to see is that the niece just may not want to be saved at all.
Bickle is an icy reflection of Wayne from THE SEARCHERS. Wayne was a Civil War hero trying to make a place for himself during the reconstruction period. Bickle is an ex-marine that fought in Vietnam and is also trying to eek out a modest life for himself (in the Big Apple). Both films center their respective characters with having a fixation on young women. Wayne grew more and more fanatical about rescuing his niece from Indians, whom he found morally repugnant. Bickle also grows intoxicated with his own plan to rescue an adolescent prostitute from the hands of a vile pimp, who he finds repulsive.
Again, the concept of whether the girl needs or wants to be saved is held in question. Surely, the prostitute is in a bad place, but there is never a moment where she cries out to Bickle for redemption or saving. Bickle, like Wayne, only sees his mission as being self-righteous, a way for him to embed his life with a meaningful quest, only after many of his other pursuits have failed miserably. His thoughts (which are sporadically revealed to us in well-timed voiceovers) reinforce his frustration and commitment to his end game. “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time: TRUE force. All the king's men cannot put it back together again…All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”
Its underlying themes help make TAXI DRIVER that much more absorbing of an experience. Along with them is the notion of one man’s lack of acceptance by the world he lives in and his growing distance that he has with it. He wants to live the life of a normal man, but when he tries and fails, he grows a fiery animosity towards that city that he thinks treats people like a cancer. Coinciding with this is his jealousy of those that have power. Some critics have mistakenly labeled Bickle as a racist (in some of the film’s most evocative shots, we see his point of view - slow motion shots of him staring at black pimps, who are financially well off). Yet, Bickle hates people who have what he desires. He tries to connect with women on normal levels, but when he is incapable of doing so, he lashes out at those that provide for unnatural connections between men and women.
Bickle is beyond sexually repressed. When he can’t get the love of a woman reciprocated, he turns his angry sights of those that allow for those exchanges. He wants a woman and can’t find a way to forge a good relationship with one. After his setbacks, he grows hostile towards those that have women and an endless supply at the snap of a finger. He observes these types of men on a nightly basis in his taxi, and his idle curiosity with them turns into something more perverse and volatile. He will cleanse the world of this scum, come hell or high water. In his mind, why should they get all the spoils when other men try to honestly get them?
As the film opens Bickle gets a job moonlighting as a cab driver. Perhaps he does so because of his pervasive insomnia, but maybe it has more to do with him trying to connect more with society. The more he drives his cab, the more disheartened he becomes. He could drive safer routes in more reputable areas, but he curiously does not. Instead, he gets drawn repeatedly to the uglier areas of Time Square and 42nd Street, which seems to be populated by every form of degenerate slim. Here lies the inner paradox of the character. He has such a desperate hatred for the city streets, but he willfully returns to them every night. He gets drawn into some of the more unsavory elements. He is a frequent customer at local porn theatres, which gives him some outlets for repressed sexuality. Yet, as he gets back on the streets, he sees people selling sex, which he finds even worse.
Bickle, like most of us would, tries to make things better. Amidst all of the lecherous elements he sees a beautiful, blond woman named Betsy (played memorably by Cybill Shepherd). She works at the campaign office of a local man that hopes to become president. To him, she is like an angel walking through the hellish streets. He becomes intoxicated by her, and even manages to ask her out on a date, in one of the film’s most awkward scenes. Amazingly, she agrees, not because she is attracted to the man, but more or less because she finds him, well, kind of odd and intriguing.
The date goes horribly. Bickle has no insight into how to properly treat a lady. He’s such an outcast from society that the only appropriate venue that he thinks of is a porno movie. This, of course, turns Betsy off in a big, big way, but the hapless and ignorant sap in Bickle can’t understand why she does not like these types of movies. She dumps him right there, but his obsession for normalcy and a relationship becomes even stronger. In one of the film’s most painful moments (and brilliantly orchestrated camera moves) we see Bickle at a phone booth trying to call her up for another date. What Scorsese does here is amazing in its execution and payoff. Rather that having to watch him on the phone get rejected again, Scorsese pans away to an open hallway as we hear the pitiful Bickle trying to talk to this woman. In a peculiar way, Scorsese finds it too painful to make us watch Bickle grovel. Interestingly, when he goes on a killing rampage later, we get an in-your-face perspective of all of the carnage. Scorsese is telling us that Bickle’s emotional pain is tougher for us to bare than the slaughtering he does later.
Bickle becomes so enraged that he sets his sights at destroying something that the woman stands for. He begins to train his body (sitting in a taxi every night has made him soft). He also begins to buy several guns. He plans and rehearses to assassinate the presidential candidate in broad daylight. He does not go through with his attempts to kill the politician, but his mind by this time is warped. Instead, he begins to focus on another girl, albeit younger, that he wants to “save.” In the film’s least appreciated performance, a very young Jodie Foster plays a 12-year-old prostitute that is like the metaphorical straw that breaks the camel’s back for Bickle. When the two cross paths on one dark street, he reaches a breaking point. He hates the business of selling sex with a passion, but when he sees a dirty hustler, Sport (Harvey Keitel) using little children, he focuses his sights of rescuing the hooker.
All of this culminates in the film’s bloody conclusion, where the now sociopathic Bickle rushes into an apartment that has both Sport and all of his cronies. He mops the walls with Sport’s blood, as well as with all of his henchmen and clients. The truly unsettling aspect of his mission is that he does not really do it because he has some sort of ethical imperative to “save” the hooker so she can go on to better things. Bickle goes on a killing spree to facilitate his desire to be a savior. By this point in the film, he has no logic to his thoughts. He is a man of violent action. He's sick and tired of having the world spit on him. He wants to take action, even if it is not the healthiest outlet for him. After he has killed the pimps and johns, he pathetically tries to kill himself. He realizes at this point that he used his last bullet on a perp. By his reckoning, all good saviors have to be martyrs too.
The direction in TAXI DRIVER is universally impeccable. This was the beginning of Scorsese only approaching the peak of his aesthetic skills. After his earlier work on MEAN STREETS in 1973, TAXI DRIVER would prove to be the beginning of an incredible creative renaissance for the then young filmmaker. After TAXI DRIVER came the ambitious, but flawed, NEW YORK, NEW YORK. That film was followed by RAGING BULL in 1980, surely the best film of that decade. Later films cemented Scorsese’s reputation as the finest American director, like THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and 1990’s GOODFELLAS, surely the best film of that decade. It can be argued that he has made the finest films of every decade for the last thirty years. Our current decade notwithstanding, but with RAGING BULL for the 80's and GOODFELLAS for the 90’s, TAXI DRIVER still emerges as the best achievement of the 70’s. ROCKY may have gone on to win the Oscar in 1976 for Best Picture (a great film in its own right), but time has shown that it pales in comparison to the richer and more thematically complex TAXI DRIVER.
TAXI DRIVER contained yet another watershed performance by DeNiro. He had already won an Oscar for his work in THE GODFATHER: PART II, but his later work in TAXI DRIVER is the superior of the two. His preparation for his part as Bickle would help establish him as a talent of maddening and dedicated edge. He worked 12 hours a day for a month as a cabbie in New York and studied mental illness fervently. There is not a forced or artificial second to his performance. The film is an alarming one because of DeNiro’s work. He does such an effortless job of displaying the whole troubling arc of his character that you never once doubt his convictions. Revisiting DeNiro as Bickle is to bare witness to the best actor of post-War Hollywood utterly submerge himself into a delicate and complex role. It’s a remarkably fine-tuned performance, which would only continue to establish his involvement in one of the finest creative partnerships in film history. With MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, NEW YORK, NEW YORK, RAGING BULL, THE KING OF COMEDY, GOODFELLAS, CAPE FEAR, and CASINO, there should be no doubt of this sentiment.
Even 30 years after its initial release, Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER still remains an authoritative and compelling film viewing experience. The film is from the 1970’s, but it has curiously not dated. I think the reason behind this is in the universal appeal of its underlining themes. The emotional territory it delves into is as old as the dramatic arts themselves. The film still resonates astoundingly as a nightmare come to visceral life; a stirring and hellish portrait of one lonely outcast trying to desperately make some sense of the world he occupies while simultaneously hating it. The film is not joyous or uplifting, nor is it necessarily fun or entertaining to watch, per se. No, the film encapsulates and immerses viewers for how it bravely dives into the mindset of a man who tries to create a sense of normalcy to his life and instead becomes increasingly more despondent and vengeful. We relate to Travis Bickle for the pain he feels, but we can’t altogether relate to him for the way he channels his hostility and apathy into violent actions.
TAXI DRIVER is a work that challenges audiences to experience the inner depravity of its main character with an unflinching veracity. In many ways, it is the most complete film of the 1970’s in terms of its scope and reach. It’s a gritty modern classic that combines elements of the film noir, the western, the violent urban melodrama, and the horror film. More than anything, it remains one of the most shocking films about psychological torment, isolation, and disparity ever made.