Retrospective Thoughts: Taxi Driver
Some films resonate with you in a way that crosses generations. You can watch the respective film now and you’ll find how it relates to society in your era. If you are lucky, you can begin to have a new perspective on what the film brings to the public and its worth to society.
In this way, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is an artistic phenomenon. Taxi Driver follows the daily the life of Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, in a psychological, disciplined, yet unhinged role. Travis Bickle, a former Vietnam War veteran, is now a depraved cab driver in New York City. He spends his time in his cab (in narration) ranting about the streets he calls home. He feels rejected from society, often complains about where life has gone, and why the people are scum and criminals. He is also a racist. Scorsese expertly tells us this by slowing the pace every time Travis makes contact with a black person. This is meant to show us the inherent uncomfortableness he has with people of color. In one scene, he is so focused intently on a flamboyantly dressed black person, that an acquaintance has to call his name twice. He feels that he has been ostracized. This, of course, is his narcissism and paranoia in his head coming out in full force. To Travis, the streets are dirty and full of people trying to do harm to him, people like him, and even us. His narration is used in way that make us feel his loss of conscience. When he tries to charm Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd), a woman who works at a campaign office, he is often awkward yet aggressive. He takes her to see an inappropriate and dirty film, something a normal person would never do, and she leaves in disgust. This, to him, is a sign that Betsy is just like the other people in the world out to get him. We know that this is a lie — as are the other things Travis says to us in the film. He is mentally unhinged, and dangerously alone.
This direction in this film is masterful. Scorsese shows the meter running as the taxi drives on each block, reminding us of how grueling and lonely this job should be. The music, done by Bernard Herrmann, is stirring. A saxophone weaves in and out in between scenes, sometimes interrupted by the sounds of the street, which is done to balance out Travis’s deranged brain, and Scorsese’s beautiful film making. De Niro reminds us how angst-ridden and violent Travis can be with every scene. This is not his number one best performance (Raging Bull is more psychologically stunning, if you can believe it) but this is as close it gets to being number one. It is a performance that combined deviance with loneliness and sympathy.
He meets Sport, a pimp who is more depraved than he is (Harvey Keitel, in a powerhouse of a performance) and Iris, a girl (Jodie Foster, in the best performance by a then-child actor we will ever see) who is somehow in more need of help than he needs. It is difficult to tell whether his actions at the end of the film is because he truly empathizes with Iris, or because he is finally releasing his urge to be violent. Regardless of that conundrum, the final scene is powerful and chilling. Scorsese shot that final scene with creativity. The colors are desaturated, the lights are dim — all done to give us a visceral reaction.
In 2016, and now 2017, the biggest issue in America is the idea of whose country this belongs to. They are men like Travis Bickle who think that their country has changed for the worst. Their narcissism and racism leads them to believe that there is a force that is driving their country away from them. This isn’t true. No one is stealing America from them. That doesn’t exist. This is the main idea of Donald Trump’s campaign and eventual election. The idea that America has gone into urban decay and is now in the hands of the wrong type of person. The idea that we need to fix that by bigotry and immaturity. Travis Bickle embodies that idea that Trump had — the victimization of marginalized people by white men who are upset that it is not all about them anymore. Taxi Driver, above the violence, the supposed heroism at the end, the paranoia, is a film about a man who is full of angst, bigotry, suffering, and frustration. It is the story of America in these current days.