Taxi Driver is truly the movie where director Martin Scorsese really comes into his own. 1973’s Mean Streets did not really connect with me as it did with other people and 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was a very entertaining road trip movie but it’s not a classic. Now Taxi Driver is absolutely the definition of an instant classic. This film, about a loner with borderline homicidal tendencies, was well-received upon release and to this day, the movie holds up incredibly strong. There are many themes that can be applied to the film which we will get more into later, so this film is one of those rare ones that will challenge you to think; to make your own personal opinions about what is occurring onscreen. Paul Schrader’s screenplay is well-written and his words are easily brought onto screen with such effectiveness. Then again, I also think Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro helped bring those words to life.
So the film focuses basically on one main character. His name is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and you might recognize the name because how iconic this character is. Anyhow, Travis Bickle is a Vietnam War veteran suffering from bouts of insomnia. He spends his days in porn movie theaters and his nights driving a taxi around New York City. Essentially, Travis is a man who is socially inadequate and he often thinks about what is wrong with the world-particularly in New York. He generally despises people, but he has a soft spot for Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) who works for the office of Senator Charles Palantine, whom he later wants to assassinate. Also important to Travis is helping an eleven-year-old runaway prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) whom Travis wants to protect from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).
So who is Travis Bickle and what does he stand for? I ask this because this movie is all about him and it is effective it getting the audience to sympathize for this character despite possessing qualities of a bad human being. We are told he is a veteran from Vietnam and that he was psychologically affected from the experience overseas. His voiceover in the beginning of the film suggests very strong opinions about people of NYC. As he cruises down the city streets, he talks about the filth of the city. The pimps, the prostitutes, the robbers, etc. He mentions if he had his own way, he would clean up these streets. We also learn that Travis is a man with a quick temper and a violent edge to him. I loved how he pretended to know everything about the political candidate, Senator Palantine just so he can get the girl. My favorite scene (or one of my favorites) is when he drives the Senator himself in a taxi pretending he knows all about his campaign. And I wont do spoilers, but there is a certain connection between Palpatine and the mohawk on Travis’s head.
This is a film that requires powerful performances if you want to make this a good movie. But with Scorsese at the helm, everyone performs amazingly. Of course, Robert De Niro did an astounding job in making Travis Bickle his own. He performed the character with ease, though this must have been tough on the actor. But I truly believed this character as a loner who is violent and has very strong beliefs. I loved the rapport he had with the young Jodie Foster. Foster began acting at such an early age, and you can see how skilled she is when she holds her own against De Niro and both have strong chemistry with each other. The rest of the cast is rounded by the likes of Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, and Cybill Shepherd (who is a joy to watch as Betsy).
I must say the cinematography and the score are standouts of the film. Michael Chapman filmed mostly at night and the picture has a gritty, real-time feel to it. The score was created by Bernard Herrmann, and this would be his last score before his passing. What a way to end a storied film career! His score yearns for the loneliness of Bickle’s heart. The saxophone is synonymous with the empty shell that is Travis Bickle. It’s a powerful, though often haunting score.
The film does not go without its controversies. The ending was deemed way too violent and Scorsese actually had to de-saturate the color to get an R rating. Though I believe it plays an essential role of the film, I agree the film (especially the ending) is very, very violent. Essentially, the end has Travis going on a murderous rampage against Sport so he could return young Iris to her family. The film is also home to a political assassination, which was set up very well. Though this is a characterization piece, expects lots of violence and blood. In fact, The attempted murderer of Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley Jr. based his assassination attempt off the events in this movie.
Taxi Driver, admittedly can be a hard film to watch. Though an iconic character, Travis Bickle is not a pleasant man. But one cannot help but root for him. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I found some interesting interpretations of this character. There are religious and social interpretations. He can be described as “an avenging angel,” and I can see that point very well. I loved how Scorsese kept the movie ending up to grabs. In other words, each person may have a different interpretation on what happens in the end. The film wouldn’t have worked unless it got excellent acting and powerful directing. And that is what we get. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro pulled off a cinematic gem. Although you might get a little depressed watching at times. Don’t say I did not warn you.
My Grade: A-