“Taxi Driver” is arguably director Martin Scorsese’s best film. While I admire “Raging Bull” a lot, will watch “Hugo” with my kids anytime they want to watch it, and will put on “Goodfellas” when I want a Scorsese film to entertain me and make me laugh, “Taxi Driver” is the one that sticks to my brain the most.
Written by Paul Schrader when Schrader was coming out of the tail end of a hellish personal period when he was drinking too much and going to porn theaters, “Taxi Driver” is a brilliant portrait of a damaged mind rotting away into the ugliest thoughts a mind can have.
The lead character, Travis Bickle (in what’s arguably, Robert DeNiro’s greatest performance), is an ex-Marine who can’t sleep and decides to deal with his insomnia by being a taxi cab driver in NYC. However, Travis purposely seems to go the worse areas of NYC, specifically Times Square and 42nd street, for fares. As the unreliable narrator, he spits at this world and predicts that one day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.
But Travis can’t help subjecting himself to this world, even spending time in low-rent 8mm and 16mm porno theaters on his off hours. His vision is so warped that he convinces Betsy, a beautiful blonde campaign worker (played by Cybill Shepherd) to go on a date with him, but takes her to a fancy porno theater because he thinks it’s a classy date. He could be naive … or he could be wanting to subject her to the same filth he’s subjecting himself to … in much the same way emotionally crippled people put potential lovers through the ringer to prove their love for them. Betsy wisely ditches him, which sends Travis further down a downward spiral. Notice how the camera pans away from Travis while he’s on the phone. It’s almost like we can’t watch him being rejected because it’s too painful.
Travis then becomes obsessed with a teen prostitute named Iris, played by Jodie Foster and decides he wants to rescue her from her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel. He also becomes obsessed with the political candidate Betsy is working for. Travis starts buying guns and working out. The conclusion is troubling to say the least. Below is a scene where Travis in the middle of his madness is quietly watching “American Bandstand” with jaundiced eyes … especially watching the interracial couples dancing while pointing his gun at the TV. The song playing is Jackson Browne’s terrifically sad “Late for the Sky”:
“Taxi Driver” is the flipside and middle finger to the mid-1970s Charles Bronson urban revenge blockbuster “Death Wish.” DeNiro’s Travis character is not only nuts, but racist and sexually twisted. However, the way that Scorsese directs the film (with brilliant editing by Marcia Lucas), you can’t help but feel for Travis while also being repulsed by him.
Of course, by now, everyone knows that “Taxi Driver” was the film that inspired John Hinckley Jr. to attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981 in order to impress Jodie Foster. While this is (hopefully) a ridiculous notion to most of us, the film is so brilliantly made and gets you so far inside the mind of a gone individual, it really does seem like a blueprint for being a psychopath if one were not in the right frame of mind.
But that’s the problem with great art. By conveying the darkest parts of the human soul in a realistic and convincing manner, you run the risk of encouraging those in a similar frame of mind to identify a bit too deeply with what you’re trying to express. However, you can’t begin to understand such dark souls without realistically looking into the heart of darkness that beats in many lost souls that wander through our culture.