Taxi Driver (1976)

There are often awkward moments in older films that I didn't mind as much in my 20s but now, with some experience, they affect me a bit more.  These are not merely "it was the times" situations, which I pretty much ignore.  It is not even when a movie has an unwanted connection to a major historic event like Taxi Driver does.  It is often when I realize that, even in a film just a few years short of turning 50, that not a whole lot has changed. 

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a Vietnam veteran with insomnia who decides to get a job driving a cab in New York because, as he puts it, he figures he may as well make some money if all he is going to do is drive around all night.  He doesn't have any friends, although he is generally friendly with his fellow cab drivers.  Unlike many of them he will go anywhere in the city during the night, including many areas people won't go during the day.

On one of his rounds he manages to catch a glimpse of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker for a presidential candidate named Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris).  He gets up the nerve to ask her out, but due to his awkwardness the date doesn't go so well.  He tries everything he knows to get her to go out with him again, but his efforts lead to rejection and the authorities being called.  Meanwhile he also becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), hoping to talk her out of her life on the streets and get her away from her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) and back to her parents.  As he becomes more isolated he begins getting himself in shape, practicing with a number of firearms he has bought and, ultimately, planning on assassinating Palantine, while setting money aside for Iris to leave New York.  

There is no question that having a 12-year-old Jodie Foster play a prostitute the same age was uncomfortable, even though her older sister Connie doubled for her in situations where things went over the line.  The awkwardness I mentioned came heavily into play as Travis tried to get Betsy back.  What got me this time about the relationship with Betsy was being able to relate to how I had been in the past as I began to experience the same frustrating isolation as Bickle did.  It is less surprising that I would be able to relate after finding out the circumstances under which Paul Schrader wrote his original script, as much of what is in the movie, save trying to kill a politician or a pimp, are things he went through himself.  

The problem is that these types of issues are still not addressed, and they often pop up with men more than they do with women.  It is a severe mental health issue and, when a man does try to talk about it - like Travis does with his fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle) - it's still hard to connect.  While I never did something as strange as take a date to a porn theater there have been times when attempts to be romantic have come off in a way they weren't meant, and it doesn't help that for most men the only guide to doing any of this is a movie.  Taxi Driver does warn of all this, and should be a lesson, but unfortunately the one guy that concentrated heavily on the film got the wrong idea, which was that trying to kill the President would impress a woman that was inaccessible. 

What makes this movie still work today is three-fold.  The first is the way Martin Scorsese filmed it, at times like a neo-noir movie enhanced by Bernard Herrmann's saxophone-fueled score and others in a semi-documentary fashion.  Scorsese at the time was still an up-and-coming director, having had a critical success with Mean Streets, but Taxi Driver was still teetering on the edge of being a low-budget independent film.  De Niro had just won an Oscar for his performance in The Godfather Part II, and in large part Taxi Driver only got made because De Niro didn't renegotiate his salary and blow up the budget. 

The second way it works is that the themes haven't changed.  A cycle of isolation still leads to suicide and sometimes violence against others, and men are still expected to shut up and quite whining.  It is what is truly meant when toxic masculinity is mentioned, although that term also turns around and blames many of the victims for it, thus further preventing them from seeking help.  The last reason this is still relevant is because, outside of the study of isolation, it also questions the nature of heroes.  Bickle only ends up a hero in this because the Secret Service manages to do its job correctly, thus deflecting Bickle to another target on which to unleash his rage.

I also credit Scorsese and Schrader for knowing that less is more.  We spend time getting to know Bickle, whether we like him or not, before the inevitable conclusion of the story.  Taxi Driver rightfully has a reputation for being extremely violent, but other than a foiled robbery it is all concentrated in the climax of the movie, so when it happens it has the power to shock as intended.  It ultimately does as Scorsese doesn't pull any punches and doesn't try to dress it up like a typical action scene.  

It is definitely not an easy film to watch and, if one is thinking this is going to be an action-packed vigilante picture like Death Wish, they will be disappointed.  It is a study of a man who would not take it anymore, but it is not a sympathetic one.  I may have had periods in my life where I could relate to Travis Bickle but, like with most people, they have come and gone.  Unfortunately, despite the fact he seems more well-adjusted at the end, even Schrader has said that is a ruse, and ultimately the cycle will start again.  Sequels were planned but, honestly, I'm glad they never panned out, as confirming the inevitable would have been less interesting than just leaving Travis out in the world with the lights of New York City reflecting off his cab. 

Taxi Driver (1976)
Time: 114 minutes
Starring: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster
Director: Martin Scorsese



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