Taxi Driver seems to take place in New York circa 1976. Perhaps it does, but the New York it essays is a thin façade stretched over a more hellish imagination-scape where the real essence of the city brews to a boil. This is a nightmare version of poverty-stricken urban life that bears a resemblance too close to reality for comfort. It’s an empty, soulless urban jungle. It produces men and women who accept it, who hate it, who love it, who are indifferent toward, and a few who try to fight it. It produces men like Travis Bickle who is all of these things even when he won’t admit it.
Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film didn’t put him on the map; it made him the poster-child for the American New Wave. No filmmaker captured the gritty, scrappy, untamed heat of the decade and it’s films like the Brow, and Taxi Driver sees him at his grittiest and scrappiest. Opening up the neo-realist nightmare of his previous films like Mean Streets to explore something more complex and more directly unnerving, it has a freedom to move and breathe and come out during the safety of daylight that it uses only to reveal things aren’t much better there anyway.
The bedrock of the film, which is a character study of New York’s tensions personified in a man, is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). Early on, it almost seems a romance – Bickle takes an interest in Betsey (Cybill Shepherd) who is working for the election campaign of a locator Senator turned aspiring President. Soon enough though, the (romantic) heat gets to him, or he gets to the heat. What Bickle sees in her is less love than an ambiguous, tentative connection to a society he disdains. She’s respectable, and he pains for a respect he doesn’t have a clue what to do with. They never connect, but Bickle has no conception of what human connection means. Whatever they had, if they had anything, morphs into a far more paranoid and dangerously self-confident nervy gasp of fears and desires.
Eventually he meets a local teenage prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), and butts heads with her pimp (Harvey Keitel) in his quest to free her. The way Bickle mostly forgets about Betsey, the way she plays virtually no role in the narrative whatsoever, speaks to how little he truly understands about human connection. In Iris, he finds someone frailer than he, and someone equally distant to society – but where any other film would establish a father-daughter relationship (Paul Schrader’s script sort of wants to anyway), Scorsese keeps things at a distance as he dials up the unease.
Bickle only sees in Iris a chance to construct the city how he wants it to be, something he self-centeredly spouts off again and again throughout the film as if someone else is listening but his own ego. He’s a loner and a misanthrope who hates people but wants to belong and distrusts both the problem-causers, or the “filth” as he sees them, and those who aspire to fix the problems. He really doesn’t care about women except as a mean’s to define himself as an agent over others, to make himself out to be someone who has power over a society that he can’t belong to. He’s monstrously self-centered and slowly moves down the path to internal destruction – we wonder if he wasn’t already there when the film started.
In a famous scene Bickle talks to himself in a mirror, feigning a conversation with someone else, asking them combatively “Are you talking to me?” The scene conveys many things: his anger at the world, his reckless abandon, his sense of self-importance, and deep down, an anger at himself he can’t consciously reveal. Soon enough, the self-esteem boasting self-refrains begin to seem like the ravings of a madman, and then bitter, brittle cries for help from someone who only conceptualizes help through the masculine, violent male lens.
Which brings us to the essence of the film, and why it is very deeply a Scorsese work. Over the years Scorsese’s pet theme – individualist males who press on society like a sore thumb on a bloody wound to the point of internal decay and destruction – has become static and draggy. Scorsese’s recent films, while still compelling in their own ways, have grown labored and, ironically, self-important. The length is a key marker – by the late 1980s Scorsese seemed to grown afraid of making a film that didn’t hop over the 150 minute mark – but the narrative complication is another. Over the last two and a half decades, the man’s works have become caught up in their own Scorsese-ness, so to speak, seeming like forced attempts to re-create a Scorsese picture rather than the real deal. Obviously, if you want to steal, you should steal from the best – but Scorsese defines self-canonization. Some recent efforts, like Hugo, see the director challenging himself, but he’s become dangerously content to rest on his own laurels.
Yet, Taxi Driver knows no such self-import. While those films stop and start with no sense of themselves (or too much of a sense), Taxi Driver hurtles forward on its own sweaty shriek into the night. If Scorsese’s recent films spend two hours clearing their throat, this one aims straight for the gut. It’s a deeply fleshy film, a work with a blackened heart and bruised knuckles that essays moans of malaise as well as howls of fury. The editing, by Tom Rolf and Melvin Shapiro, cuts deep, and Scorsese’s impeccable long takes poke and prod at Bickle’s existence to capture a fully lived-in character even when the screenplay leaves him intentionally ambiguous. This is a film alive with little details. Even when it ends, and the blood flows in a scene that seems self-indulgently violent more than anything else, there is at least a chaotic, merciless, vicious, Midnight Cinema bent to the scene. It’s clumsy and not particularly well thought out, but there is, at least, a liveliness to it that keeps it going on its own guerilla momentum.
Ahem… Robert De Niro. As though one can write a review of Taxi Driver without mentioning one of the most famous and iconic screen performances ever, which is precisely why I don’t wish to spend much time on it. Simply put, Travis Bickle is perhaps the most memorable character of the seventies, and he’s given an honest, pained, earthen life as much due to De Niro as Scorsese and Schrader. Travis Bickle is a monstrously difficult character to play because he’s never quite sure of who he is even as he remains rigorously sure of it throughout the film. He’s impudent and insolent even as he’s kind and prone to philosophizing, a humble figure who distances himself even as he self-aggrandizes and pushes himself into the action. In De Niro’s terse words, off-center movements which rock between unnecessary fluttering motion and pervasive uncanny stillness, and eyes filled with hellfire and holy water, we find ourselves lost in a character who defines the indefinable.
If Taxi Driver breathes angsty decay, it also understands the gallows humour in Bickle’s situation – he’s a man who fancies himself one thing but has no idea what he’s talking about. His musings are overly-philosophical, and Scorsese finds a slight mocking tone amidst the deadened filmmaking. The humour in the film is dark though; its key ingredient is the nervous laugh, a laughter we feel because we want something to be funny so we can have an excuse to break up the tension. Scorsese knows this and films De Niro for comedic impact, holding the camera on him too long to let his philosophizing seep in and get spit back out again. But the tension still seeps through. Not only that, they puncture something fierce.
When the film ends, the dust has settled but the unease remains –we’re given something that approximates catharsis, but even then Scorsese is less sure. We’re treated to a scene of quiet success as Travis achieves social recognition for his violent actions. He’s rewarded as a hero, a human avenger, and he denies it. The scene, however, is so out-of-touch with the rest of the film it’s hard to take as part of the filmic reality. The entire film is built on unsparing stark efficiency and poetically straightforward nerve-wrecking as he sends us into the city’s trenches, a hell-scape many of us call home. It’s a crime film, in one sense, but it unfolds with the slow surreality of horror. The emotional high of the ending is none of these – it is Scorsese giving us the end we think we want, only to render it so obviously false we can’t accept it even as we come to realize our own implication in the events of the film for wanting a happy-ending in the first place.
Of course, this self-implicating critique is also the essence of Scorsese’s work; his self-conscious filmmaking, with its ode to classic cinema, smoky jazz, a New York framed in a husky moonlight, and faces shot through with the falsifying lens of mirrors and light positioned as if specifically to obscure and reveal according to the needs of the script, has the ending play out like a romantic noir completely at-odds with the film’s grimy tone. Schrader intended it all to be an ode to his filmmaking influences, but Scorsese turns those influences on their monstrous head. He makes them a lie. Paul Schrader’s screenplay, on its own, is much more sympathetic to Bickle, and indeed, much more authoritarian in its attitude toward society, but Scorsese’s eye wholly disagrees (of note: while Schrader originally wanted black villains, Scorsese’s camerawork flips the script and makes Bickle an uneasy racist). He, with De Niro in the know to his vision, turns the white would-be noir avenger into a sick, depraved, amoral beast of a man. He transforms an ode to Old Hollywood noirs and their fascination with “moral” revenge into a curdled, grotesque sickening of the same idea. But that’s one of the most famous director-actor tag-team duos for you, taking a film and turning it inside out into its opposite from the ground-up. That they indict the whole of American society and its fascination with individualist revenge-violence is just the icing on the cake.