Drama / Films / Thriller

Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese remains one of cinema’s strongest filmmakers, best known for classics such as Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and Mean Streets, with Taxi Driver standing out as the high point of his career. Taxi Driver, directed by Scorsese but written by Paul Schrader,  is a phenomenal movie, often found at the top end of greatest ever lists, and with good reason too – it’s an important and mature film from cinema’s Golden Age, standing as one of the best movies of the 70s, built on powerful acting, confident direction and beautiful, haunting cinematography. Like Psycho, Taxi Driver is one of those seminal movies which has been discussed to death since its release, but it remains a movie worth talking about. A powerful, powerhouse of a film, Taxi Driver represents American cinema at its finest. taxi22The film follows Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), an ex-Vietnam Marine who now works as a taxi driver in New York. Bickle is a lonely, unhinged man, unable to connect with the world around him, working in the filth of New York’s cruel, crime-heavy streets. We follow him through the city and watch as he attempts to bond with political campaigner Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and child-prostitute Iris (a young Jodie Foster), becoming increasing detached from society, and increasingly dangerous. The film is a study of an individual’s breakdown and descent into violence, as well as a commentary on the failings of society. taxi8Rewatching Taxi Driver, what’s first noticeable is how dreamlike it is in terms of atmosphere and imagery. This is a hazy, dizzying movie, filled with smoke and lacking in clarity, with the airy style matching Travis’s drifting psyche. There’s an an off-centre distance to everything, all of which is helped by the amazing direction. In driving scenes, Scorsese films from within the cramped quarters of the taxi-cab, using natural (but artificial, and limited) light to illuminate the action. The majority of the movie is shot in a measured, slow and steady manner, which adds to the hazy dreamlike quality of everything. It’s a film which feels paced, lacking in movement, yet there’s a great sense of awfulness and horror lurking beneath the surface. The score – Bernard Herrmann’s last and one of his best – is a contradiction, at times jazzy and beautiful but often bold and frightening; this is a movie built on duality, where nothing is quite one thing or the other. Camerawork throughout deserves comment, as Scorsese turns the lens almost into its own character, allowing the camera to sway and wander off on its own tangents. In one of the movie’s most important scenes – when Travis is speaking to Betsy on the phone, trying to persuade her to see him again – the camera flows away to focus on an empty corridor. It’s almost as if the camera wants to spare itself from Travis’s shame. The moment marks the start of Travis’s rapid decline too, illustrating the straight path he’ll be taking from this point out, and the lack of visible parties on screen also stresses the lack of communication in the movie; Travis is unable to connect to anyone.taxi6Scorsese also fills the film with numerous stylistic quirks, which work beyond gimmicks and visually enhance Travis as a character. The repetition of imagery throughout adds to the dreamlike tone, but it’s the repetition of lines and scenes which stand out as key. There’s a fantastic moment where Travis is monologuing about the scum of the streets, but he’s unconfident in his voice. The scene jarringly restarts, much stronger the second time around, and the change is so abrupt that it feels like an on-screen retake. The idea being here that Travis learns through practice (stressed also by his body-building) and that with every moment, he builds upon his past, becomes stronger, but also less human. He erases himself with each take. The infamous ‘Are you talking to me?’ scene is also built on the same sense of repetition, and highlights Travis’s need to engage with the world, without really knowing how to communicate with it. He’s shouting at what’s around him, and lacks control.taxi3The movie also boasts stunning cinematography. Rarely has a movie captured the horrific grim of a big city this well before – the effect is somewhat similar to old Modernist writers, such as Conrad, who would turn London into is a character itself, and a dirty, cruel and unpleasant one at that. The streets are dirty, full of smoke and broken water mains, and crime runs rampart. There’s a beyond Gotham level of chaos to these streets, as if the city itself were poisoned, and anything goes. The imposing, labyrinthine streets become a trap for Travis, whose taxi driving job allows him to glimpse into New York’s darkest corners. There’s a pestilence to everything and the streets feel alive and hopeless, which combines with Travis’s already bleak sense of isolation to make him into a monster. Taxi Driver raises interesting questions about the anonymity big cities provide and how this in turn can become a breeding ground for destruction – highlighted in the film by the realistic attempt on the Senator, as such threats from nobodies are not accounted for in the city. The city does not care about Travis and so he falls. It’s a lonely and harsh place and one of the most definitive cityscapes in all of cinema. It’s also serves as a realistic portrayal of New York during the crack epidemic, a New York which really doesn’t exist anymore. taxi2As for Travis himself, he’s a fascinating character. He’s not really a hero in any means, but he’s a contradiction, and difficult to pin down, tragic and likeable but also extremely frightening. De Niro has given some outstanding performances in his career – The Godfather II, Raging Bull – but this is his best role, and he’s captivating here, becoming completely engrossed in the iconic Bickle. He says little, and there’s a great sense of loneliness to him, a need to do right but lacking the means to get there – the scene in which he takes his date Betsy to a porno theatre perhaps best sums up his character, which is built on a lack of social awareness and crucially, an innocence. This is a character who means well but struggles with himself and those around him, becoming increasingly unhinged and menacing as the movie progresses, with the Vietnam inspired Mohawk the summation of his decline into war and violence. The violence too, when it comes, is brutal and shocking, and the camera lingers on the bloodshed; there’s no shying away from the horror of it all. Many have spoken about the films ambiguous ending, suggesting that the final cab ride represents Travis in death. More likely however, is that Travis survives – the city labels him a hero, in a satirical commentary on the corrupt nature of justice and social systems at the time. Travis murders pimps and is labelled by the press as an avenging force. But the world does not save him – the jarring, discordant chime as Travis glances into his rear view mirror suggests that the violence still lurks within him, and that next time, Travis and those around him won’t quite be so lucky. It’s a movie about the failings of society, and raises interesting points about Travis’s role – does society create people like him? The movie leans towards yes, especially in the final epilogue. taxi9The rest of the cast are good too – with Harvey Kietel in an early role as the monstrous Sport, and Cybill Sherpherd’s Betsy an angelic, if intangible, presence throughout the movie. She strolls into the film like a ghost and can’t be reached by Travis, though the two for awhile have wonderful chemistry, built on the strong improvisational skills of the two actors. The film’s most talked about star beyond De Niro however is Jodie Foster, who even as a child-actress is a remarkably confident and measured performer. Her prostitute role is exactly as disturbing and unsettling as it’s meant to be, but Foster underlines it was a sense of loneliness and fear, saying a lot with misleading dialogue. It’s no wonder she went on to become a multi-award winning actress. Iris is a raw character who addresses unpleasant issues, a character that audiences are meant to struggle with. taxi7Taxi Driver is a smart, mature, and confident movie, with excellent camera work, interesting themes and well drawn, darkly fascinating characters. It’s a dreamlike movie to lose yourself in and as a commentary on the corruption of modern America, it’s pretty spot on, working more like great literature than a great movie. It remains one of the 70s high points – up there with The Godfather and Apocalypse Now – and is a movie not to be taken lightly. A classic, and Scorsese’s best – it’s one of the greatest movies of all time.

5/5

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8 thoughts on “Taxi Driver

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