Taxi Driver (1976)
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998
When people are talking about good old times, they actually want to make some bad times look better. Nice example of such behaviour is contemporary attitude of popular media towards the 1970s. For new generations, Superseventies are the lost Golden Age of chic fashion, cult TV shows and sexual freedom unchecked by AIDS. For people who actually had to live in that period, it was the Gloomy Decade, marked by lost ideals of 1968, rampant inflation and unemployment, international terrorism, fuel crisis and loss of faith in almost anything that previous generation stood for. Feelings of despair and nihilism found its reflections in many films of that era. Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER, which symbolises both the glory and despair of the Seventies, is most celebrated of them all.
The movie's protagonist is Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro), 26-year old former Marine who takes the job of taxi driver in New York City because he can't sleep at nights. The job gets him exposed to the dark side of apocalyptic megalopolis, and Travis gradually gets alienated from the rest of world. The only bright spot in his life is Betsy (Cybil Sheperd), attractive woman working in Senator Palantine's presidential campaign. Their date ends as humiliating fiasco because Travis makes fatal mistake by inviting her to porno movie theatre. Losing his only link to better side of the world, Travis gradually descends into psychosis, becoming convinced that his mission in life is to battle scum on the street. He purchases a formidable arsenal of guns and begins physical preparations for the inevitable conflict. That conflict finally comes when he takes personal interest in Iris (Jodie Foster), 12-year old prostitute who temporarily took refuge in his taxi.
As many great movies that got cult status through the years, TAXI DRIVER became the object of many interpretations. For some critics and scholars it is an exploration of universal subjects that date back to Dostoyevski - loss of moral compass in a bleak reality of dirty, overpopulated industrial cities; the story could have been set in 19th Century same as in our times. For others, the movie uses Raskolnikov-like figure in order to portray burning problems of 1970s America - its apparent inability to deal with the consequences of rapid social changes that occurred in previous decade.
Brilliant performance of Robert De Niro in role of a lifetime can give arguments for both sides. His Travis Bickle has a lot in common with most of the average viewers of today - many of us share his feelings of isolation, loneliness and outrage towards crime, drugs, prostitution and senseless street violence. His pathetic attempts to establish some kind of human connection with the people around him, sometimes in most unusual circumstances - like with Secret Service agents, pimps or job interviewers - make him a person too goofy to be the hero, and too pathetic to be the classic villain. However, most of the average viewers are sensible enough to recognise the tin line that separate concerned citizens or troubled souls from fanatical madmen. But despite anything, average viewer at the end actually cheers for Travis - his crusade against "scum" is something that average person wants, but doesn't have a stomach/lack of brains to do it.
While De Niro's Travis might come in and out of particular times and places, other persons that appear in the film (mostly played by the character actors) give it distinctively 1970s feel. Wizzard (played by Peter Boyle) presents the only link with America's better past; but only because he is the oldest taxi driver in company and therefore everybody assumes that he "knows stuff". His obvious inadequacy in giving advice to troubled Travis illustrates the inability of pre-1960s generations to find answers to the problems of Gloomy Decade. Other characters, on the other hand, show the bad side of New Age. Matthew "Sport" (Keitel, who befriended real-life pimps in other to prepare for his role of a lifetime) is dressed like a hippie; Iris found excuse for her escape to the world of drugs and child prostitution in a ideology of Counterculture. Porno movies, that should be the element of new times of sexual freedom, are too much even for supposedly "liberated" Betsy. Even the politicians, like Senator Palantine, are lost in post-Vietnam and post-Watergate mess; his broad and senseless "messages" that cover the lack of any serious program can't fool even such idiots like Travis. The Past is gone, The Present is bad, and even The Future seems bleak, and the feeling of pessimism can't be washed away even by ironic happy end.
Travis and his world found themselves in a desperate situation, and Martin Scorsese uses the best of his cinematic skills in order to spill the gloom of Schrader's screenplay into the silver screen. New York City in the night is portrayed as a Hell on Earth, and the red light and steam coming out of sewers give it surreal, almost Stygian atmosphere. Another important element of the atmosphere is score of great Bernard Herrman, whose efficient use of jazz elements gives some melancholy that softens the brutality of motion picture.
One of the greatest ironies of TAXI DRIVER is the fact that the movie was, same as his protagonist, famous for the wrong reason. Instead of receiving cult status because of his artistic merits, for many years it was tabloid-fodder because of Hinckley and his real-life re-enactment of events in the movie. Now, more than two decades later, when some other "life imitating art" incidents get more attention, we can finally enjoy TAXI DRIVER in all its artistic glory.
RATING: 9/10 (++++)
Review written on May 13th 1998