WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
Director: Martin Scorsese
Producer: Michael Phillips, Julia Phillips
Screenplay: Paul Schrader
Starring: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel
Release Date: February 8, 1976 (USA)
**THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT DETAILS**
"I've got some bad ideas in my head." -Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver
Travis Bickle, the antihero/villain of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, has always been a loner, an outcast, a socially awkward specimen. Though it may appear that he is just an odd creature of the night suffering from insomnia that eventually escalates into loneliness, he tells us that loneliness has followed him his entire life, and whether this alienation and estrangement has increased from Travis's experience from the Vietnam War is a different story; but as far as we know, Travis has always been mentally unstable and socially inept.
Enter New York City, the center of American culture and lifestyle, a place that, like Travis, never sleeps. Knowing Travis, we can assume he gets a kick out of some of the odder, less interactive places and cultures the ever-growing city has to offer. But also knowing Travis, we can realize that the heart of America, with roughly seven-and-a-half million inhabitants at the time, is not the city suitable for him. He refers to the city countless times as a place with scum and rotten lives: "Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets." The city's nightlife absolutely disgusts and sickens Travis to a point of internal and external anger, and though his mind his frequently tormented by the portraits of the city, he keeps drawing himself into the very hell he is creating for himself. He'll go anywhere in the city and take anyone, even offering rides to the very filth that frustrates him.
The film, at a glance, is a timeline of failed attempts at social interaction; first with a blonde he spots and obsesses over at a campaign office, and then a politician, a child prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), a Secret Service agent who he gazes at for a while while next to him before he can utter any words, fearing any sort of connection. The viewer can at first be saddened by Bickle's attempts, and especially when Scorsese pans the camera away from Travis as he makes a phone call to the blonde, named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). The communication between the two over the phone, with only Travis audible, is so forced and unsuccessful that Scorsese pans away from Travis, for the desperation Bickle has to be loved, or cared for, or something of the sort. It can also be noted that the phone call and the camera pan is a transition between two acts of the film: the Travis that hates and despises the city but merely tolerates it and can walk among society being indistinguishable from the undisturbed comes before the phone call, and after the call, Travis doesn't tolerate it. He can't walk among society indistinguishable, not even physically, as he begins to sport a dirty mohawk soon afterward.
After Betsy, his obsession is with Senator Palantine, Betsy's boss. Palantine, in many ways, is the forefront of the scum of New York--a nemesis of Travis in many ways as well. So Travis must get rid of him. At this point, Travis will not yield from trying to kill anyone he believes is in his way, like a would-be robber who Travis shoots down, but not really in self-defense, without a permit, or his failed assassination of Palantine, who Travis believes is holding Betsy back from him. Even in the climactic scene, Travis shoots Sport (Harvey Keitel), who is in his way of saving Iris, the child prostitute, and a man who is in his way physically. Travis is becoming the very scum he forces himself to hate.
Soon after, the ending sequence, a largely ambiguous one, comes to surface. Opinions will vary, but as Travis imitates a gun to his head whilst taunting the police, I believe the film transitions into a dreamlike state. First, Travis is appearing to be dead, or just unconscious at the moment, and then an aerial view of the scene, almost like a "god's view", and then a series of events portraying Travis as a hero, and he even plays it cool with Betsy, who coincidentally drops into his cab one afternoon. She notices the newspaper articles about him, and he shrugs it off, eventually arriving at the destination and leaving her free of charge. Everything falls into place for Travis. Which seems can only happen in his happiest place--his loneliness, eternal bliss. Travis dies somewhat a hero, making him a protagonist of sorts, though also being a villain and an antihero in the same film.
Robert De Niro gives the greatest performance in cinema history as Bickle, and every word from his mouth, or sometimes lack thereof, gives undeniable proof of his sociopathic nature. The supporting cast here is brilliant, with Cybill Shepherd and Harvey Keitel cast perfectly. These actors can truly be praised for their incredible work in this film, not being outshone by the greatest actor of all time in De Niro. The screenplay is breathtaking, and Travis's journal entries alone can hallmark a psychopath's daily thoughts. Paul Schrader's best writing is displayed in this film, even topping Raging Bull. The visuals are outstanding. Michael Chapman's atmospheric New York City cinematography is the best of the city ever shown on film. The editing is tight and quick, and is purely seamless. The camerawork captures the highs and lows of the people and surroundings Travis despises. Bernard Herrman's score may be his best, and along with Psycho and Vertigo, Herrman can be condemned as a master of musical scores in film.
The direction by Martin Scorsese is astonishing and remarkable. For a film with this subject matter, there could have been many flaws. I found none, and believe me, I looked for some. There is a very, very, very small number of the many films I consider to great that are flawless--Taxi Driver is one of them.
Like I discussed earlier, there are two phases of Travis in the film: the Travis that hates and despises the city but merely tolerates it and can walk among society being indistinguishable from the undisturbed, and his intolerable, maniacal, extraordinarily violent phase. This film makes you observe society and the community around you, and it makes you ponder how many people walking among us are in that first phase like Travis in the beginning, on the tip of the iceberg but not releasing the anger. It also makes you question: where will you be when the 2nd phase strikes? Will you be safe at home, doing your taxes or washing the dishes? Or will you be simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, punished by someone else's discomfort with themselves and the world around them, an innocent soul tortured by others like Travis Bickle?
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.