Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) is one of the greatest films of all time. Certainly it is in the top select group, whatever number it is given--ten, fifteen--of all American films, along with his Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. But Taxi Driver is completely unlike any of his other films.
What makes this film so effective is the acting of Robert DeNiro. Not to run down anything else about the film--the story, the direction, the music, the cinematography are all basic, integral parts of creating the picture's overall effect. But without DeNiro's brilliant performance, none of the rest of it could have made it the profound work it is.
To give it a literary analysis, what Taxi Driver does, on the surface, doesn't seem to be very spectacular. It's a story that could conceivably made up of bits of many other films made before it, combined in an almost arbitrary way. Bits of one romance, one political movie, one film about working guys, another about Vietnam veterans, throw in a dash of a thriller, and a few seedy exploitation films for good measure, and you could come up with this plotline. Sort of like what Quentin Tarantino sometimes gets accused of--bringing the same old thing to the screen in new combinations and expecting to be hailed as revolutionary.
(And as far as the Tarantino-reference count: aside from the presence of Harvey Keitel as an underworld character, when Iris is trying to get away in Travis's cab, Keitel's "Sport" grabs her, at one point saying, "B----, be cool." This line is echoed in the Mexican standoff in Pulp Fiction by Jules Winnfield [Samuel L. Jackson]. Also, the specific shot-composition of the sequence of Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) noticing Travis's name on his license in the cab is repeated when Butch Coolidge [Bruce Willis] checks out the name of his taxi driver, Esmeralda Villalobos [Angela Jones].)
But what gets you here (and in Tarantino's movies, too) is the characters. And in this case, the haunting character who makes it worthwhile is Travis Bickle. The audience is set down in this absolutely familiar world, almost boring, almost predictable--however vile and dangerous it is, it's still the same old thing--and then after we are lulled into it for a bit, we suddenly look at Travis and realize that despite our comfort, our indifference, he has absolutely no idea what on earth to do.
That's when it gets scary. That's when we realize that all of the things he did that seemed fairly normal--getting a job as a cab driver, asking Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) out, even to some extent buying some guns and showing concern for a young prostitute--are just things he does. We as the audience in our lives might do any number of similar things and consider ourselves normal and reasonable, but when Travis Bickle does them, they are rootless, born out of disconnection and loneliness. So even if he petted a kitty or volunteered at an old folks' home, it would be unnervingly weird.
Then we notice the rest of the picture, and it pulls us in, making us see ourselves in Travis Bickle. This is no loner you hear about on "America’s Most Wanted" who suddenly goes crazy and snaps and kills his co-workers or whatever. Now the audience is that loner, that rootless traveler without any compass to guide him. You can look into Travis Bickle's face and watch him do all the things he does--the significance of what he does never registers on him in the slightest. Bernard Herrmann's dark, jazzy score becomes a metaphor for the drifter, and the strange colors of the world we have come to see as predictable swim and pulse through it, around Travis and us, and we can scarcely think of anything better to do than what Travis ultimately does. At any given moment, there is no choice that the audience can say that Travis should make to change his circumstances or alter his fate. That's truly unsettling.
As far as a point, Scorsese wisely avoids one, or subverts it with irony. It could be asserted that the film is about urban rootlessness, and it is, or about the modern American loner, and it is, or about violence, and it is, but none of those are the point. The ending provides no clues, either. We can't give Travis any credit for saving Iris (Jodie Foster) from her pimp any more than we can condemn him for taking Betsy to a porno movie on their first date, or anything else he does. He has no choices that are acceptable. Indeed, one quite valid interpretation of the "happy ending" is that it doesn't really occur, that it's Bickle's weak imagining of what should happen after his bloody "heroics."
"I believe one should become a person like other people." This is probably the weirdest, most touching line in the film. It's not about sympathy for someone who is disconnected from the world, or someone who is unsocialized or mentally deranged. It's just a universal longing that no one can ever really solve.
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