Pros: Scorsese’s direction, Schrader’s screenplay, the acting, the cinematography and atmosphere.
Cons: Will get under your skin big time.
(This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Epinions.com)
It’s a line. It’s one that you’ve doubtlessly heard many times. One that you’ve probably said many times. Sometime when you’re on the phone with a person and they say something and you’re not sure it was directed at you. So what do you say?
You talkin’ to me?
Of course 99% of people will know that line even if they haven’t seen Taxi Driver. That line has joined the likes of “Here’s Looking At You Kid” and “May the force be with you” in cinematic history.
As for the film itself: It would be an understatement to say that it holds up. It did not win any Oscars. Yet it still can be watched and admired (“enjoyed” might be too strong a word to use here) nowadays (I wonder how many people will watch and admire Titanic in 10 years).
Most people familiar with cinematic history will know the background on Taxi Driver. How Paul Schrader wrote the script while going through a time of personal torment living in Los Angeles. How Martin Scorsese ended up with the script after Brian De Palma turned it down. How Taxi Driver became his second collaboration with Robert De Niro after Mean Streets (the movie that put Scorsese on the cinematic map). How the MPAA threatened the film with an X rating for (surprise surprise in this paranoid of sex day and age) graphic violence. How Scorsese desaturated the colors in the scene the MPAA complained about and this made the film even more effective. How Taxi Driver went on to become something of a box office hit (albeit not quite a smash on the level of say Jaws) and a critical favorite. How it got overlooked at the Oscars in favor of a certain boxing movie not named Raging Bull. If not, then that last paragraph was the summary.
De Niro plays Travis Bickle, an insomniac Vietnam vet loner. It’s the insomnia that leads him to apply for a job driving cabs. When we first meet Travis we learn a few minor details about his life. He seems at first like many loners we’ve known, both in the movies and in real life. As the story progresses we see him gradually become unhinged. There have been numerous movies that show the lead character doing just that. Some have done quite well. But few have done it as well as Taxi Driver.
While on one of his runs, Travis sees Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) a campaign worker for Senator Palantine (a senator whose rhetoric mirrors that of then future would be aspirants to public office like Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura). He starts becoming somewhat obsessed with her and starts putting the moves on. At first she rebuffs him. But after a little pushing agrees to accompany him to a movie. Unfortunately, Travis chooses a porno movie and this of course does not go over well. The next woman to figure prominently in Travis’s life is 13-year old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). Travis simultaneously becomes obsessed with rescuing her from her pimp (Harvey Keitel) and taking out Senator Palantine.
Up until the late 1960s, early 1970s, movies had more or less clearly established their heroes and villains. Then with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde in 1968 things began to change. The antihero began to emerge.
Travis Bickle in a way is the perfect big screen antihero. He begins the film as a more or less ordinary guy and gradually goes insane (although the movie does subtly hint there may have been signs of that beforehand). What makes him go crazy? The movie shows how the crime and pollution he witnesses around him is a factor albeit not the sole reason. Part of it is also a desire to leave a mark of some kind on the world. In a way by looking at Travis Bickle we also get a look into the minds of real life disturbed lunatics like John Hinckley and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Scorsese’s direction helps keep the tension in the film at just the right level. He knows when to underplay it and when to let it boil over. This is an instinct that has served him well throughout his career.
The cinematography works well. New York city is portrayed as neither heaven nor hell. But as a sort of purgatory. We see the demons all around be they Keitel’s pimp or a psychotic passenger in Travis’s cab (played by Scorsese himself) who talks openly about brutally murdering his former wife. Scenes of driving through rain or seeing the high amount of trash resulting from a garbage strike that affected NY at the time this was filmed help us join in Travis’ descent into madness. Bernard Herman’s score is another of the elements that make this film so effective.
As far as the acting goes, what more needs to be said? De Niro has given many a great performance over the years and some of the weak jobs he has taken recently cannot erase that. This may be his definitive performance. He shows Travis evolve from paranoid loner to crazy man to would be assassin to wherever he may be after the credits roll. Jodi Foster is just as good as the should be innocent girl who’s got a certain sense of wisdom beyond her years. Keitel, Peter Boyle and Scorsese himself are good in their supporting roles. Shepherd is a little wooden here and there. But this does not damage the film at all.
Taxi Driver, in addition to being a landmark of the cinema of the 70s, also opened the door for many of the films that would come along later. Movies like Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down and Neil Jordan’s The Brave One (also with Foster) owe a debt in both style and content to Scorsese’s masterpiece. So if you’re looking for a film with great acting, a compelling story and one that does not pull punches at all, then Taxi Driver is the film to see.