Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Written By: Paul Schrader
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybil Shepherd, Harvey Keitel
When Howard Beale in Network urged us all to put our heads out the window and scream “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” in 1976, Travis Bickle pre-empted the call. Travis is one of cinema’s most interesting characters, and one of its angriest, but he didn’t have the eloquence of a Paddy Chayefsky script to help him voice his emotions, all he had was his violence. Of course outside of this anger, Network and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver have little in common. Taxi Driver, like so many wonderful films of its era (including Sidney Lumet’s Network), got inside America’s disillusioned mind, but it’s no satire. Rather it’s one of the most entirely disturbing and bleak portraits of a filthy society to have ever been posited.
Travis is America’s sullen zeitgeist come to life. He’s a disturbed man, an unstable ex marine suffering from insomnia who fills his long nights making money as a cab driver in New York’s seediest streets. Scorsese keeps us in a state of constant unease with his New York, a city that is at once sweltering and chilly. You can sense its grime blackening your skin as we see Travis loathingly look out his car window to the walking and talking sewerage that has snuck out from under the streets. Travis sits atop that cinematic canon of disaffected young Americans that came out of the early New Hollywood era. Like Bonnie and Clyde before him, Travis’s only discernible skill is his capacity for violence, a capacity which isn’t truly unveiled until late in the film, but which presides over his thoughts and lingers in the back of our minds as we listen to his narration, installing the film with a constant dread. He’s increasingly sickened by the filth that lines New York, disillusioned with what the world has become, and he’s obsessed with cleansing it. This anger and unceasing dirtiness of Taxi Driver’s world is noticeably enclosing. To see a city so unknowably filthy, through eyes so unknowably unstable and pained, holds us at a slight emotional distance, but makes for a nightmarish visceral plunge.
What surprises most about Martin Scorsese’s much admired psychodrama is how sad it is. For all his danger and anger, Travis Bickle’s story is a tragedy. There’s a goodness in him, but he doesn’t know how to let it out. He’s too isolated, too awkward and dumb to ever find the right words. There’s a moment when Travis is writing a letter to his parents to wish them a happy trio of events. There’s a sincerity in his intent, an affection, but he’s unsure of the specifics and his handwriting is childish. His execution fails him as it does in his social life.
It’s his relationship with the angelic campaign volunteer Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) that best highlights Travis’s social ineptitude. He grows infatuated, he wants to be good to Betsy, but we never give them a chance because we know Travis is just too far removed. There’s a much discussed shot in the film that augments the sadness of Travis’s lonely story. As Travis is caught awkwardly on the phone trying to justify an embarrassment from one of their earlier dates, Scorsese slowly pans across to a long and empty hallway as if to shy away from Travis’s pain. This is the moment that Scorsese felt he should turn away from; telling, given how unflinching the film is in its gruesome final act. When an opportunity for redemption offers itself up then, in the form of teenage prostitute Iris (a terrific Jodie Foster), we sense everything is at stake for Travis. His self assigned liberation mission is as much for him as it is for the young girl with her whole life ahead of her. He has an opportunity to make worth of himself and sweep away part of that filth that teases him so relentlessly.
Robert De Niro’s performance is tremendous, rendering that duplicity of sadness and scariness. He’s at once vulnerable and threatening, but also brings a great enigma to Travis. Travis’s mind mystifies, and it seems to hold us captive as we’re aligned to his filters, seeing New York with the same contempt that he does. For all his instability, we can’t help but feel Travis is right when says someone needs to clean this city up.
Scorsese’s classic may not involve us in the action as a film like Goodfellas does, but it is a world which owns us, which haunts us with its grime and dread. It’s difficult to recall such a feeling of inundation watching a film, but that’s what Scorsese does. He doesn’t merely show us a world; he forces us to live in it.