1976 - R - 132 Mins.
|Director: Martin Scorsese|
|Written By: Paul Schrader|
|Starring: Robert De Niro (as DeNiro), Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, and Martin Scorsese |
|Review by: John Ulmer
The fluorescent lights of the pornographic theaters, hidden in the seedy back pockets of Manhattan, illuminate the grunge of New York City’s underbelly. Hookers stand in the slim static circles along the sidewalks, their pimps waiting in the shadows.
Somewhere nearby, hidden within the restraints of his taxicab, a lonely man watches with disgust. His eyes survey the streets with all the malice and passion of a burning fire, his large pupils an open doorway leading into his soul. The demons haunt him; voices in his head convince him that the world is closing in and the only way out is through some form of moral redemption; a physical and emotional catharsis.
The stranger’s name is Travis Bickle and he is God’s Lonely Man: a discharged Vietnam veteran who wanders the streets at night in a permanent state of confusion and self-loathing.
Travis takes a job as a cab driver to keep out of the porn theaters that have been occupying his time – deciding he might as well get paid for roaming since he does it anyway.
But Travis’ filtered input and odd output seems to suggest something is dreadfully wrong. The mild insanity of our protagonist begins to escalate. He approaches an attractive political campaign advisor, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), and asks her out to dinner. She agrees, but the date is cut short when Travis takes her to an X-rated film.
Travis soon meets a young underage prostitute named Iris (a fourteen-year-old Jodie Foster), whom he feels a desire – nay, a need -- to rescue from slavery. Iris’ pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), becomes another of Travis’ demons.
Taxi Driver was released in 1976 to split praise. Some critics hailed it as a masterpiece, whilst others were a great deal more reserved in their accolade. In Newsweek, Jack Kroll wrote “(…) in their eagerness to establish rich and moral ambiguities, the Catholic Scorsese and the Calvinist Schrader have flubbed their ending. It’s meant to slay you with irony, but it’s simply incredible.” Some critics just hated the film in general and felt the entire runtime was a mess of pretentious storytelling and depressing, gritty themes.
Depressing? Yes. Gritty? Yes. Brilliant? Most definitely. Scorsese does not merely address Travis as a character; he puts us inside his head. And even so, there are instances of abnormality in Scorsese’s camera work that suggest paranoia and schizophrenia; moments of displaced subjectivity in which we are neither looking quite through the eyes of Travis nor through those around him, but more at length to his side…yet it seems that his body (primarily his hands) are below us, at the side of the frame, indicating an altered version of the traditional P.O.V.
Scorsese’s movie is structured using diverse narrative elements – one of the most prominent being dramatic irony rooted in Greek tragedy (in this case, many set-up and pay-off moments). When Travis exits the brothel for the first time, a Mafioso figure says, “Come back any time.” Travis responds, “I will.” We know he will, too, and when he does, that’s the pay-off.
Above all else the film is rooted in the basic existentialist philosophies of Berdyaev, Heidegger and Nietzsche. Scorsese later admitted this his toying of genres and philosophy was entirely incidental (“It just felt right…”) but one can’t help but imagine Schrader may have been influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, in which our narrator begins, “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” This brings to mind the scene in which Bickle dictates his journal entries to us and delivers an ultimatum to the “filth” on the streets, preceded by senseless introspective rambling.
Not only does the film provide a heavy, intellectual variety of classical influence (which highlights an undercurrent of familiarity with the viewer to begin with) but also in terms of regular entertainment, it is an almost flawless film. From a technical perspective, Scorsese implements countless shots filmed so well, and so distinctly, that it’s not hard to imagine the backbone of Taxi Driver is its direction (if its brain is the script).
One of these memorable camera devices (and perhaps the best of the film) is when Travis tries to call Betsy after their failed date. We pan from Travis, speaking on a pay phone, to a nearby empty hallway. The room hereby becomes a metaphor for Travis’ loneliness, and when he appears into the frame again, he’s leaving down the hallway…marking his descent into a tunnel of personal hell.
In terms of metaphors, Paul Schrader’s script is one to begin with. Although it was heavily influenced by the John Ford westerner “The Searchers” (1956), insofar as that it presents its hero as going on a quest to save someone who does not necessarily want to be “saved” (in this case Iris seems perfectly content with Sport, and it is implied her parents may have abused her), Taxi Driver borrows more heavily from foreign films – the abstract metaphors of a Bergman film, for instance. The use of a taxi cab as a metaphor for anonymity (does anyone pay attention to cab drivers? do we know who they are or where they come from or…?) is yet another in an endless line of parallel lines drawn by Schrader.
All of Scorsese’s films seem to deal with Catholic guilty and the city as a source of alienation. Taxi Driver is less concerned with these devices as, say, Mean Streets (1973) may have been, but it still carries its traces. In fact, Scorsese’s favorite theme seems to deal with city life – Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Mean Streets, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967) and his Kafka-esque bitter comedy After Hours (1985) all deal almost exclusively with this motif.
Taxi Driver examines the city as a type of Dante’s Inferno for its protagonist (if Travis can justifiably be classified as one to begin with). Taxi Driver was the first film to focus on the mentality of the post-Vietnam era and its boundaries of the urban city as a setting provides a further isolation to the restricted mind of Travis Bickle, who cannot seem to escape his limitations. The famous shot of Travis walking down the street with his hands in his jacket, his head down, is yet another metaphor – a link between the mentality of the moment (trying to flee his inner demons) and the physicality (trying to flee as far as he can from the filth).
Travis’ filtered input (as aforementioned) results in two types of people: The Filth and the Normal. Dostoevsky wrote, “Though I have said that I envy the normal person to the point of exasperation, I wouldn’t care to be in his place in the circumstances in which I find him.” This true for Bickle. He hates the scum, and envies the “normal” people – yet does not particularly care to become one of them, because his schizophrenia and self-loathing prevents him from doing so.
Case in point: the infamous porn theater date. Much has been written of this. Most critics seem to agree that Travis is so distanced and detached from propriety that, because he sees other couples in the theater, he assumes it is “normal.” He emulates normality but fails and, in fact, repels the woman of his dreams.
This is the most basic and reasonable theory, although there is another that is more likely. Travis suffers from paranoia, depression and mild schizophrenia (as indicated by Scorsese’s awkward subjective camera angles). As such, he has two sides to his mentality – the part of him that wants to adapt to society and become a typical human being, and the other which loathes himself so much, all it wants for Travis is pain and suffering.
As such, the second mentality creeps into play during his date with Betsy. He takes her to a pornographic theater knowing full well that she will resent him for doing so, and thus he will lose her.
We gather from the film that Travis enjoys inflicting pain upon his own self (of an emotional and, occasionally, physical sort) and this is certainly a prominent case. By losing Betsy he breaks his own heart and by trying to “get her back” he only humiliates and defiles himself, furthering the self-hatred. There seem to be two distinct sides to Travis Bickle: The Psychopath and he hero. The psychopath desires only pain whereas the heroic side of Travis Bickle wants only to be accepted by society and praised for his good deeds.
This is hardly overt, but De Niro’s delivery of a subtle, tricky and subjective characterization of Travis hints at this schizophrenia. Travis views himself as a “savior” – an irony given the fact that he is clearly racist, homophobic and violent. In one scene he purchases weapons from a street dealer, including a .44 Magnum – yet another instance of dramatic irony/pay-off (as aforementioned), as it ties into a sequence that occurs earlier in the film when a taxi cab passenger (played by Scorsese) tells Travis how much damage a .44 can do to a woman’s body. It is through this link that we are to infer Travis is brewing some bad ideas in his head (perhaps dealing with his ultimate embodiment of the female: Betsy) – which comes to a reality when he tries to tell a fellow cab driver, the wise and experienced Wizard (Peter Boyle), of his problems. But the Wizard can’t understand Travis’ loose mumblings and tells him he just needs to get out and “get laid.”
Travis deals in personifications. Betsy is the pure, unattainable hero’s reward. Sport is the amalgamation of all decadence. Senator Palpatine (whom Betsy is campaigning for) represents a paternal father figure for Betsy, which is why Travis ultimately targets him for assassination towards the end of the film. One of the men from the campaign headquarters (Albert Brooks) epitomizes the sleazy ladies’ man (which Travis is not, therefore Travis despises him, even from afar; when he first meets Betsy one of the first things he tells her is that he doesn’t like the flirtatious man, though he has yet to meet him). Iris becomes his visual embodiment of innocence, which he once had, and now regrets losing; his “saving” her from Sport provides the personal catharsis for which Travis must pass through in order to redeem or “cleanse” himself.
De Niro’s performance is deeper still in the way he manages to present Bickle as a sort of child figure - awkward in his actions, ultimately coming across as an adolescent trying to imitate and emulate those around him; to impress the adults, only on a more intense scale. For example, during a scene in which a black man is robbing a convenience store, Travis seems almost too prepared to pull the gun out and “save the day”…he is overzealous and nervous. (This is, yet again, his heroic complex coming into play.) He shoots the man, and then steps back, accepting praise, looking towards the owner of the store. Instead, he gets kicked out before the cops come, while the owner beats the dying man, presumably disposing of the body afterwards. Travis expects to become a hero but instead he’s treated as the scum he loathes.
These events confuse Travis. Everywhere he goes he just wants to help restore order but all he can manage to create is further chaos. It’s the fundamental truth of this movie that our hero will never find peace with himself or his surroundings because, ultimately, it is the nature of his life and surroundings that ensure this will never become possible for him. It’s the tragedy of drama in a theatrical sense and the tragedy of life in a realistic sense. As long as there is a society there will always be men like Travis Bickle – men who yearn for respect and love but are unable to find it anywhere, and never will.
The conclusion of the film is an enigma in itself. Schrader later claimed: “I think the ending is thematically immaculate and poetically satisfying.” This is very true and further demonstrates the abilities of Scorsese, as a filmmaker and stylist, to transcend the normal limitations of the genre by throwing a final curveball at the audience. It’s not just a blood-soaked revenge climax fuelled by the concept of poetic justice. Yes, Scorsese does turn his ending into a deus ex machina – but that’s the point. By suddenly concluding his film in a rather typical fashion, Scorsese draws yet more ironies and satire. On top of that, the ultimate puzzle of the film: Does our hero live or die?
After Travis is shot in the climactic battle, he lies on a sofa, presumably dying, and makes a gesture with his fingers, pretending to shoot himself in the head. The camera pulls up, overhead, and exits the brothel. It then pulls back across the street and up into the heavens, surveying the crowd below.
In the next scene, Travis is alive and well, presented to the world as a hero through the media. Iris has been saved and her parents are grateful. Travis returns to work as a taxi cab driver and manages to fit in with fellow cabbies, telling jokes – something he couldn’t do before. Then Betsy gets into his cab and he fulfills his own fantasy by finally managing to reject her – when she offers him payment he simply ignores her and rides away, a smirk on his face.
Yet as Travis pulls away from the curb at the end of the film, Herrman’s familiar four notes (the same ones as used for the final shot of Psycho, implemented when Norman Bates’ lack of absolute sanity is finally revealed) come into play. A bell rings. Travis looks in his rearview mirror, as if maybe something caught his eye…
And then, suddenly, the movie ends.
Taxi Driver’s ending cannot be resolved further more than conjecture and opinion. Scorsese himself says on the DVD making-of documentary that he believes the ending is open for analysis. Did Travis live? Did he die? Are the demons on the street still haunting him? Are we meant to sympathize with him and believe he is a hero, or are we meant to refuse him as one? (Or is this our natural reaction against Scorsese’s own wishes [which would explain the negative reviews in ‘76]?)
The best films are ultimately the ones we can return to years later and still be enthralled and mystified by. Taxi Driver has been inviting open criticism for nearly three decades, now, and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
It is ultimately the haunting image of Bickle drifting through the endless hordes of nameless people on the streets of Manhattan that lingers with us after the film has ended, and remains the most prescient today. How effortlessly this man can disappear into the multitudes – God’s Lonely Man once again alone, alienated and betrayed by the world he has come to loathe. That, above all else, is the most poignant aspect of Taxi Driver.