Overview: An unhinged Vietnam veteran takes a job driving a cab at night through the streets of New York City, where he grows more violent and unstable as a result of the perceived human scum he encounters. Columbia Pictures; 1976; Rated R; 113 Minutes.
God’s Lonely Man: This film is, at its core, about alienation. Vietnam established a dangerous reverberation in our culture that was reflected through much of 1970s cinema, in which violence was both the very thing that fractured the psyches of young American men, and yet, violence was also a means of trying to restore what had been lost through previous experiences with violence. Travis Bickle, played impeccably by Robert De Niro, says that loneliness has followed him everywhere, but I always read the film as being immovably and undeniably rooted in its particular time and place, which is to say, his recklessness seems informed, increasingly, by the triggers around him and his own susceptibility to those triggers after returning from war. New York City was grittier than it is today, but there’s also something about our unreliable protagonist, and Martin Scorsese’s stylistic choices that make the viewer feel like what we’re seeing is a version of reality; yes, the streets do seem seedy (and some of Travis’ fares are despicable to say the least) but the film remains dreamlike in some way too (the most dreamlike moment being the film’s hypnotic conclusion, one of the most haunting in all of film history, I’d say).
There is also one shot in which the camera pans away to a long, empty hallway while Travis is using a payphone. In another scene, we see Travis exercising, but through jarring jump cuts paired with his bitter, rambling voice-over. These are just some of the moments that stuck with me. This is one of Scorsese’s earliest works but also one of his first would-be classics, a visually complex, technically experimental, and eerily symbolic film.
You Talkin’ To Me?: Funny that among those scenes I mentioned, the most famous one is missing. I think this line has been so overblown, and out of context at that, but it does speak to a couple of things nonetheless: how truly psychotic Travis becomes, living in a world of play-violence in which he is a hero/savior, even if only in the confines of his apartment, and of course also how classic the film has become.. This scene isn’t the only way Scorsese is telling us about Travis Bickle’s somewhat self-imposed isolation, but it has come to be the most well-known one.
I Got Some Bad Ideas in My Head: Taxi Driver isn’t necessarily its most interesting when it is strictly an examination of Travis’ desire to clean up the city, so to speak; in fact, what is most interesting to me is that he does latch onto a seemingly worthy cause (of saving a young prostitute played by a very young Jodie Foster) and he does indeed carry out acts of violence for that cause (when he fails to do so for a more overtly political one). But, even within these gruesome, bloody final scenes, the sense of fantasy remains– another favorite image of mine from the film is that of Travis shooting himself in the head with a finger-gun gesture and a strange smirk on his face. This is the perfect climax to a basically perfect film about a highly imperfect man in an equally imperfect time, leading to an almost too perfect denouement that will affect you far more than any iconic line you might have been reciting in an exaggerated De Niro impression.