Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver“You talkin’ to me?”

So begins one of the most famous monologues in recent movie history.  Travis Bickle’s brief conversation with his reflection in a mirror is a brilliantly improvised moment in one of the most harsh, brutal, and honest visions of the darker side of New York ever committed to film.  Martin Scorcese’s story of an ex-Marine who works the night shift as a cab driver is an unflinching look at the less glamorous side of New York–the part that travel agencies and marketing campaigns work hard to gloss over, but nevertheless plays a vital role in keeping the city alive as a thriving metropolis and center of world commerce.  The film begins with Bickle, masterfully played by a young and talented Robert DeNiro, applying for a job as a taxi driver, and follows him as he transports all manner of lowlifes around the city.  No picnic himself, Bickle is a lonely and isolated man who sees corruption all around him, and is frustrated to the point of violence with the depravity of modern society.  He is the consummate anti-hero–Holden Caulfield all grown up, but with enough money and wherewithal to find his own violent means by which to end the problems of New York.

Taxi Driver is as much a character study as it is a compelling narrative, and watching it is akin to reading a scholarly paper on mental illness.  Bickle suffers from an undiagnosed condition augmented by chronic insomnia, and instead of seeking help he delves further into madness throughout his time as a taxi driver.  When he develops an affection for Betsy, a campaign worker whom he can watch from his cab through the glass windows in her office building, he is unable to pursue the relationship in any sort of meaningful way at all.  Consider their second date:  Bickle is certain that a movie would be a good idea for an evening together, but entirely removed from any type of social norms, the only movie he can think of to take her to is a salacious foreign film.  Their phone conversation following this unfortunate date is so painful to hear, Scorcese instead films the hallway to the side of Bickle’s pay phone rather than let the viewers see his pathetic pleas for reconciliation with Betsy.

Taxi Driver Travis Bickle Iris

Travis and Iris

Most of the movie takes place at night, when the lowlifes and scum of the earth are out en masse, and from the series of seedy characters whom Bickle transports across the city, it’s easy to see why he is so personally affected by the dysfunction which comprises his entire worldview.  Rather than reacting, though, he simply internalizes all the violence and depravity, as if he is logging everything on a sort of mental checklist.  Meanwhile, he puts his Marine Corps ingenuity to use by finding ways to hide weapons on his body, most notably by dissecting a desk drawer and using it to concoct a sliding mechanism for hiding a small pistol up his jacket sleeve.  It’s like we are watching a balloon slowly fill, knowing it will burst but wary of what will happen when it finally does.

The one ray of hope in Bickle’s life is a young street walker name Iris, a performance by Jodie Foster that would serve as a harbinger of the atypical roles she would choose throughout her acting career.  The two become friends, and her salvation becomes his mission:  she essentially gives the ex-VietNam vet a cause to fight for, and a clear enemy, in the form of her controlling master Sport, to overcome.

Premiere Magazine put Taxi Driver on its list of 25 Most Dangerous Movies, but don’t confuse this with a simple revenge fantasy or a film that sees violence as an end unto itself.  Taxi Driver is far from graphic, and the bloodletting near the end would easily qualify for a PG-13 rating today.  Bickle’s downward spiral from loner to sociopath to would-be savior is as engrossing as it is heartbreaking, and it is his descent into confusion and madness is far more compelling and disturbing than any run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up flick.  Scorcese’s hallmark has always been multi-layered characters wrestling with inner turmoil, and even though Taxi Driver was relatively early in his career, it’s a must-see for anyone interested in great classic cinema.


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