TITLE OF FILM: “Taxi Driver”
FILM YEAR: 1976
DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese
WRITER: Paul Schrader
STARRING: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepard, Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks
In “Taxi Driver,” Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), is a loner, ex-marine working in New York City. Never turning anyone away from his cab, he spends his nights driving around the “animals,” as he calls them, in the parts of New York no other driver wants to go. His patrons and their behavior disgust him. Steeped in a guttural hatred for what he witnesses, he expects more from people, and he hopes for more from himself.
Bickle keeps a journal where his inner thoughts and feelings have a safe place to live. Spending his days at porno movie houses, he longs for female companionship. He flirts hard with no real boundaries, and as the story unfolds, he develops an infatuation with two females, for two very different reasons.
Campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepard) is the ideal he longs for. He sees her as a pure dream, untainted by a dirty world. Iris (Jodie Foster), a pre-teen prostitute, is the disenchanted young damsel he wishes to save. They are in essence what he wants and what he wants to make right.
Throughout “Taxi Driver,” juxtapositions create an uneasy tenor. The score (by Bernard Herrmann, who was nominated posthumously for an Oscar) alternates between an ominous and a jazzy sound. It never quite lets the audience become complacent within a particular mood. The lighting is fascinating, in that the city street lights give off a gritty, effervescent glow. Everyone and everything, no matter how dark, is on display. A political campaign office and a trashy motel are the settings of two different kinds of pimping- one for power and money and the other for power and money.
De Niro shares the screen with a capable cast. Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, and even director Martin Scorsese add color to the canvas, with each holding their own opposite De Niro. Cybill Shepard plays it cool with a breeziness as airy as her part in 1971’s “The Last Picture Show.” She relies mainly on the softness of her looks and her voice to create a character worthy of Bickle’s obsessions.
Jodie Foster, who was 14 years old at the time of production, delivers a vivid portrayal of lost youth. But what is so heartbreaking about her Iris, has nothing to do with Foster’s powerful acting. It is her “lack of age” that is in the forefront. As the film progresses and the adult men pimp out this child, the viewer’s disgust for their actions will become especially palpable as they bare witness to this atrocity.
No matter the casts’ talents, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 cinematic masterpiece is a showcase for the one and only Robert De Niro. He is truly unnerving as a man who slowly devolves, or evolves some would argue, into an eccentric crusader for a moral order. In the year’s since its release, admirers are still talkin’ about his performance.
CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:
De Niro’s character is invaded with the idea that he must be better than those he drives around. In exploring the seedy underbelly of the city that never sleeps, “Taxi Driver” can dive into the conscience of a man trying to find his place in an imperfect and unscrupulous world. It asks the question- what happens if you are unable to come to terms with the sins of a people? It is Travis Bickle’s response to that question we bare witness to in this film.
Travis Bickle is an introvert, who manifests his purpose- he is on a mission to save humanity. His ultimate plans are both heroic and homicidal, and his transition from quiet and standoffish to wild and brutal is at times frightening. However, throughout the film’s climax, we are left to wonder if we can blame our disturbed hero for his choices. Is he losing his mind? Is he fulfilling his destiny? Or perhaps, is it a little of both?
RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival over forty years ago. It was awarded the Palme d’Or (the highest honor of the festival). ‘Taxi Driver’ was showered with admiration and recognition. It received four Academy Award nominations. These included ones for acting (Foster and De Niro), score (Herrmann) and Best Picture.
“Taxi Driver” is often given the distinction as one of the greatest films of all time. The film has been included on such lists by Time Magazine, the American Film Institute (AFI) and Time Out Magazine. Worthy, high praise indeed.
COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:
Although Martin Scorsese had directed films in the years before “Taxi Driver,” this film set its maker on the course that would forever define his style. The film is quintessential Scorsese in its equal parts brutality and soulfulness. However, the story sprung from the mind of Paul Schrader (who also wrote “Raging Bull,” another Scorsese classic starring De Niro).
The lesser-known Schrader is also a director whose past works include “American Giglio” and “Affliction.” Most recently, Schrader wrote and directed the gripping “First Reformed.” Critics have praised ‘First Reformed.’ AFI and the National Board of Review each named it one of the top ten films of 2018. It has received four Independent Spirit Award nominations and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (Schrader’s first ever Oscar nomination).
The similarities between “Taxi Driver” and “First Reformed” are without question. Interwoven in both films are themes of faith and violence. Schrader seems drawn to the questionable morality of the human race, and how one must survive and live in an immoral world.
WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:
Although Travis Bickle’s response to that question of survival is unique in its psychosis, the question itself is not unique to his story alone. Engaging this immoral world is something we all do on a daily basis. We have only to read the paper in the morning or turn on the news in the evening to see that there are much violence and pain in the world we inhabit. How do we not let the sorrows of the world weigh so heavily on our minds that they impugn our own sense of happiness and purpose?
I am in no way implying that Travis Bickle’s response should lead the way, but a heavy heart can weigh tremendously on the soul. Answering that question for ourselves is something we all must strive for. We must continue to see the light through the darkness, strive for a more moral world and find peace within the madness. Because if we lose sight of the good, we may all go a little insane.
‘Taxi Driver’ is available for purchase/rent on Amazon Prime, PlayStation, YouTube, Google Play and Apple.
What are your thoughts on ‘Taxi Driver’? Let me know in the comments below!