TAXI DRIVER (1976)

  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Writer: Paul Schrader
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, and Peter Boyle
  • Accolades: 2008 AFI Top 100 list (#52), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#32), Palme d’Or – 1976 Cannes International Film Festival, 4 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor – Robert De Niro, Best Supporting Actress – Jodie Foster, Best Original Score)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Taxi Driver is much lauded by critics and directors alike, and also is perhaps now just as relevant as it’s ever been, but I find it extremely difficult to love. Having seen it once, I have no desire to see it again. Some movies can be subject to value judgments because of the off-screen actions of their cast or crew, but this is a movie that causes queasiness because of the movie itself. Certainly it is not the fault of young Jodie Foster that her appearance in this film inspired George Hinckley to first stalk her during her freshman year at Yale, then attempt to assassinate President Reagan in order to “impress her.” But this is a movie that drew direct inspiration from the diary of another assassin, Arthur Bremer, who had shot Presidential candidate George Wallace. Robert De Niro even read the guy’s diary to help him get into character as the dangerous loner, Travis Bickle. Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese did not invent the “Travis Bickle type,” and I’m not going to argue they shouldn’t have put it on screen. But Taxi Driver is, perhaps, too subtle a movie for some, and has been cited as an inspiration by crazy, violent men ever since. There are plenty of people out there who watch Travis Bickle talking in the mirror, saying, “Are you talking to me?” to his reflection, and come away thinking he’s a cool guy.

De Niro, as Bickle, is a returned Vietnam veteran who spends the movie traversing the dark underworld of New York City in his metal canister, always completely alone, slipping deeper and deeper into darkness. He can’t sleep, and spends most of his days alone in his apartment, watching TV (today one assumes he would have the channel permanently tuned to Fox News), working out, and posturing in front of the mirror. Eventually he becomes obsessed with a beautiful campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd) working for Presidential candidate Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris). He attempts to volunteer for the campaign as a pretext to talk with her, and she agrees to go for coffee with him. This seems to be a success until he tries to take her to “a movie” and it turns out to be a porno at a sleazy theater. Bickle seems genuinely confused as to why she’s offended.

Bickle’s life takes a darker turn at this point, and he even buys several guns illegally. He confesses his dark thoughts to a taxi-driving mentor called “Wizard” (Peter Boyle), but the man basically just tells him to cheer up. He transfers some of his obsession to “saving” a child prostitute played by Foster from her pimp “Sport” (Harvey Keitel), who wears an Indian headdress (there is a whole reading of this movie, which I don’t have time to fully explicate, that claims it’s basically a remake of The Searchers). After shaving his hair into a mohawk, he attends a Palantine campaign rally intent on assassinating the candidate, but is chased away when a Secret Service member spots his gun. He goes directly to find Foster, where he shoots her pimp and massacres several other people in the building, being shot several times himself in the process. After collapsing on a couch, out of bullets and covered in blood, he puts a finger to his temple in imitation of a gun and pretends to pull the trigger. There is then a montage of newspaper headlines showing that he was not prosecuted after months in a coma, and was in fact hailed as a hero. In the movie’s final scene, he picks up Foster in his taxi and she thanks him for saving her, after which he seems to spot something in his rearview mirror and appears upset once again.

A recent poll rated Taxi Driver as the “Greatest New York Movie” ever made. It depicts a specific 1970s New York City, a city in bankruptcy and a seemingly endless downward spiral, full of boarded up storefronts and billowing steam. Scorsese shot the movie during the 1975 sanitation workers’ strike in the city, the piling garbage leading to the sense of overwhelming squalor throughout. It is no coincidence that 2019’s Joker, which is everything short of a remake of this movie, takes place during a “garbage strike” in the fictional 1970s Gotham City. That movie’s desaturated color palette is also a direct nod to that used here, though in this case it was less an artistic choice than a necessity. After the MPAA threatened to slap the original cut with a X-rating due to its violent final bloodbath, Scorsese made the decision to desaturate the movie’s film stock to make the blood less shockingly red. Perhaps bizarrely, this worked, and the movie got its R-rating. The violence still resulted in the movie being booed at its Cannes premiere, but didn’t prevent it from becoming the surprise winner of the top prize at that year’s film festival.

Also a subject of great controversy at the time was the portrayal of a child prostitute by Jodie Foster, 12 years old at the time the movie was shot, including the child actress’ presence during the shooting of the final massacre. After discovering Scorsese’s plans, the Los Angeles Child Welfare Board initially opposed Foster’s presence in the movie. However, after a psychological assessment of Foster by UCLA and direct intercession by the Governor of California (for some reason) shooting was allowed to proceed, as long as a social worker was on set at all times and Foster’s older sister was used as stand-in for certain “sexually suggestive” scenes. Foster later said that she “hated the idea that everybody thinks if a kid’s going to be an actress that means she has to play Shirley Temple or be someone’s little sister.”

There is also controversy, in the critical sense, regarding the ending of the movie. Roger Ebert argued that it was “clearly” a dream of Bickle’s, what passes through his head as he dies, and that it doesn’t make sense any other way. He is hardly alone in this. But when asked about this, neither Scorsese nor Schrader seemed to see things that way. Schrader noted that he saw the film as a loop, that no matter what triumphs Bickle has he’ll always go back to the dark place, and stated that “you could splice the last frame to the first and start all over again.” Certainly, the movie doesn’t actually give you any actual confirmation of the “dream” hypothesis. It seems to me to be a last-ditch attempt by critics and filmmakers to make the fact that the movie is firmly ensconced in the canon seem more acceptable. If this is a story where Travis Bickle is crazy and terrible and in the end finishes his spiral into darkness, goes on a killing spree, and dies, we can excuse that as a study of a real character type that exists in the world and we need to grapple with as a society. But if he really is rewarded for his violence, that is not just a comment made by the movie on society, it’s a comment by the movie on the violence, whether the movie intends it or not. Put another way, if that’s really the ending, maybe Hinckley was more right about his interpretation of this movie than anyone would want to admit.

Taxi Driver has been universally acclaimed a great movie since it came out, but I find its appeal very lacking. I understand, I think, that the filmmakers are trying to show Bickle in the light he sees himself, to better understand where he’s coming from. There are a couple of problems I have with this. One is that in the years since the release of this movie we have, unfortunately, had plenty of opportunities to grapple with this kind of insane, loner, mass murdering young white man, so that any “insights” this movie may have provided no longer feel particularly insightful. The other is that, by showing Travis in the glorified light that he sees himself, it is easy for others to miss the distinction and actually see him that way. Just because the filmmakers didn’t mean to make that movie doesn’t mean it’s not the movie they made.

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