Film review: Taxi Driver (1976)


My review is intended for viewers who have already watched the film. Spoilers ahead.

In the 70s, movies moved out into the streets. Among others Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, both directed by Martin Scorsese.

Taxi Driver was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won the Palme d'Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. The film was chosen by Time as one of the 100 best films of all time.

In Taxi Driver, we are encouraged to feel empathy with a questionable character. We get under Travis' skin with the personal voice-overs. I get the feeling Travis wouldn't lose his mind, if he had a support system who cared. Travis is unable to establish normal relationships.
Some claim the movie can be watched as a slow-motion documentary of the mind. About a cold and distant person slowly going mad, affected by the city environment. The hallucinatory atmosphere is like a character in itself, a portrait of the dark side of New York. We get to experience the dark side by watching the film.


An extraordinary star-making performance for the ages by Robert De Niro, which is impossible to wipe from your memory. Robert De Niro drove round in a taxi in New York to prepare for the role. He improvised the famous “are you talking to me” scene, in the script it just said: Travis talks to himself. Entire books have been written trying to dissect Taxi Driver, such is the impact. Its sort of a sister film to Mean Streets, which embarrassingly I have only seen in patches.


In 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, they write how Travis sees things in the dark alleys of New York that most people will never see. He feels invisible, and maybe even numb and impotent. The rough streets are all he knows and he seems frustrated that he no longer knows of a better life. After trying to become a part of society by dating Betsy, his alienation and frustration grows with her rejection of him, his next goal is to destroy society by assasinating a politician. Travis is a confused individual in a world he is on the fringes of, later on he does a U-turn and now wants to rescue a young prostitute from the rotten, criminal underworld.

They say you are more lonely in a crowd, and this is very much the case for Travis, especially when driving around in his cab and observing people. He wants his life to be significant, yet his attempts to fit in and matter are inappropriate. He is the anti-hero, who has taken the law into his own hands, and what makes him dangerous is that he is capable of anything, someone we sympathize with, even though he is doing wrong. Not an easy film to watch, Travis is a despicable character, who becomes a hero.


Unfortunately, Taxi Driver formed part of the delusional fantasy of John Hinckley, Jr, which triggered his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, an act for which he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The question is, is the film glorifying violence, and thus a vehicle for madmen to imitate? I hope not, and if this is the case, they have misunderstood Scorsese’s intention.

A story about our culture. A study of masculine self-destruction. I would think a long-term goal of the film is to help reduce urban violence by showing an example of how and why it happens. So the general public become more aware of marginalized and vulnerable members of society, so family/friends or the authorities can step in and support them.

Travis is a walking contradiction, eating pills and trying to keep fit at the same time. He loathes the scum who make love in his cab, yet he frequents dirty movies. Travis works out, then eats junk food. He is drawn to the very things he claims to hate about New York. He supports the politician Betsy is working for, but then Travis turns against him later on.

Some viewers no doubt will identify with Travis’ urban alienation, longing to belong to something, longing for a meaningful life. Other may find Travis creepy and insane.


The film can spark a debate about how we discuss violence in films. Travis is complicated, a mentally unstable Vietnam War veteran, we don’t know how the war has affected him, the film explores his demeanor.

His spiral into madness might be his unrealistic desire to clean up the streets, a one man army, but with no clear enemy. After all, it’s all seen through the eyes of Travis, so we don’t know what to believe. As his voiceover states: “One day a rain storm will come and wash away all the scum off the streets.” Unfortunately, Travis is becoming the very thing he sought to get rid of.

As Dave at dvdinfatuation writes in his review: Scorsese structures Taxi Driver in such a way that we’re in Travis’ company for nearly the entire film, keeping us so in tune with his lead character that, like Travis, we become oblivious to the rest of the world. We are one with his warped reality, and serve as the lone witnesses to his journey into the abyss.

There’s definitely comparisons to be made between Drive (2011) and Taxi Driver (1976). I prefer Taxi Driver, in both films we don’t know why the lonely guy wants to help others, it’s a mystery.
Also, Taxi Driver is comparable to Fight Club (1999), an at times violent character study with a subjective viewpoint about an insomniac dealing with alienation issues, who through voice-overs thinks about what is wrong with the world, and wants to make it a better place.

Travis attempts to rescue women who in fact may not want to be rescued. Apparently, Martin Scorsese loves the comparable western The Searchers (1956), where the John Wayne character also attempts to “save” a girl.


In writing the script, Paul Schrader was inspired by the diaries of Arthur Bremer (who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. However, the writer also used himself as an inspiration. Schrader, who hadn’t spoken to anyone for several weeks when he wrote the script, slept in a car, as his marriage had recently broken up. According to Schrader, the story is about self-induced loneliness. The taxi cab is a metaphor for isolation and loneliness, a metal box on wheels.
Other sources of inspiration for Schrader were existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea and Robert Bresson’s script for Pickpocket. Schrader doesn’t think you will get rid of the madmen in society by censoring art.

Screenwriter Paul Schrader: “People said it must be terrible, knowing I had to top it. I said, no, it’s just the opposite. You’re free from feeling that you’re never going to accomplish anything. (…) I wrote it that way after thinking about the way they handled In Cold Blood. They tell you all about Perry Smith’s background, how he developed his problems, and immediately it becomes less interesting.”

Film critic Roger Ebert discusses Scorsese: “His protagonists are often awkward outsiders who try too hard or are not sure what to say (…) Scorsese is uninterested in conventional heroes (…) The arrival of Taxi driver in 1976 is hard to describe. It was, and is, such a passionate, challenging, raw, and powerful film that it created a space of its own. (…)De Niro, who comes from nowhere – we get hardly any background – and drives a cab in New York and eventually we realize he’s seething inside, he’s got all this violence bottled up (…) Perhaps it is why so many people connect with it even though Travis Bickle would seem to be the most alienating of movie heroes. We have all felt as alone as Travis. Most of us are better at dealing with it."

Scorsese: “The whole movie is based, visually, on one shot where the guy is being turned down on the telephone by the girl, and the camera actually pans away from him. It’s too painful to see that rejection. (…) I mean, I find that one of the key things, for example, in Taxi Driver was that you have to see practically everything from Travis’s point of view. Otherwise, you wouldn’t go with him when he killed those people. You wouldn’t know why. Not that you do know why, but you’d have to understand the feeling”
“Much of Taxi Driver arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope. And the shock of walking out of the theatre into broad daylight can be terrifying. I watch movies all the time and I am also very bad at waking up. The film was like that for me – that sense of being almost awake(…) The whole film is very much based on the impressions I have as a result of growing up in New York and living in the city”
“In Taxi Driver Travis Bickle lives it out, he goes right to the edge and explodes. When I read Paul’s script, I realized that was exactly the way I felt, that we all have those feelings, so this was a way of embracing and admitting them, while saying I wasn’t happy about them. When you live in a city, there’s a constant sense that the buildings are getting old, things are breaking down, the bridges and the subway need repairing. At the same time society is in a state of decay; the police force are not doing their job in allowing prostitution on the streets, and who knows if they’re feeding off it and making money out of it. So that sense of frustration goes in swings.”
Travis really has the best of intentions; he believes he’s doing right, just like St Paul. He wants to clean up life, clean up the mind, clean up the soul. He is very spiritual, but in a sense Charles Manson was spiritual, which doesn’t mean that it’s good. It’s the power of the spirit on the wrong road.”



In the TV-documentary Scorsese on Scorsese, the director discusses Taxi driver: “What is a hero. That is my question in most of my pictures. What is a man? What is a hero? Is it might makes right? Or is it someone who can sit down and make everyone reason things out? The second ones harder. If you hit someone long enough they are going to stop. It works for a while, then it all comes back. (…). In Taxi driver we tapped into not being one of a group, loneliness. (…) Being an outsider in this world, not being able to connect with anyone, expresses itself in the film and in the character through violence. (…) This guy (Travis) crosses the line, why? The beauty of Schrader’s script, and the nature of why he (Travis) is this way. You don’t know. (…) In the end scene, Travis looks in the rearview mirror of his cab, as if he catches a glimpse of something happening, wanted to give the impression that it (the violence) is going to happen again”

The distorted view of New York in Taxi Driver at the beginning is seen through the front window of the cab, where New York’s skyline seems to melt like a surrealistic dream picture by Salvador Dali. (01.32)


Author Jan Oxholm Jensen writes: The way in which New York City appears in Taxi Driver reflects Scorsese’s personal fascination with the big city and not a detailed representation of reality. Oxholm believes the aesthetic qualities in terms of visuals and music confront the viewer to reflect on the importance of the surroundings. The use of camera is a question of creating a certain point of view of New York, which Oxholm argues is nihilistic in Taxi Driver, as opposed to Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), which is a nostalgic or romantic point of view.

Bars and grates are visible in Taxi Driver’s prison like environment, in Travis’ apartment, which increases the feeling of claustrophobia and being enclosed from the rest of the world. Likewise the box-shaped taxi is a prison on wheels, and entraps Travis in the same lifestyle. The panels on the side window of the cab accentuate him being locked inside. (12.15)


Travis lives in his own little world, the background and foreground are out of focus, when he goes to the movies. His hand is covering and imprisoning his face (56.24)


Travis won’t take it anymore. He takes the law into his own hands. In the final moments, its as if God is looking down and making a judgment on the events that have taken place.
Roger Ebert on the ending: “There has been much discussion about the ending, in which we see newspaper clippings about Travis' "heroism," and then Betsy gets into his cab and seems to give him admiration instead of her earlier disgust. Is this a fantasy scene? Did Travis survive the shoot-out? Are we experiencing his dying thoughts? Can the sequence be accepted as literally true?”

The ending certainly is ambiguous. To be honest, I didn’t like the classical music score, other than that I couldn't find anything to complain about. Its one of my favourite films and Scorsese’s best in my opinion.

I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about Taxi Driver, let me know in the comments! Is it Scorsese’s best?

IMDB

Rottentomatoes


Sources:
Scorsese on Scorsese (2003)
Scorsese by Ebert (2008)

10 comments:

  1. Intriguing review. I think De Niro's performance in Taxi Driver is remarkable, and Scorsese and Schrader effectively paint a bleak picture of urban life. I do feel a bit cold towards the film, and I think that's why I don't place it in the same category as a few other Scorsese films. However, I realize that's by design, so I'm likely reacting in the way the creators intended. Nice job.

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  2. Taxi Driver ranks among my favourite movies, and one of Scorsese's greatest achievements alongside Raging Bulls & Mean Streets.

    Your mention about the movie's POV approach is spot-on. We don't just watch Tavis lead his demented life, but we're also at times made to feel as if we're in his shoes.

    This really was a powerful movie with everything working for it.

    Great review!

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  3. Excellent, excellent examination of my favorite film of all time.

    I could talk and write for hours on end about this film, and what you've done here is really something. You nailed it. Bravo.

    (Fun fact, you're right about Scorsese's affirmation for The Searchers. He modeled Travis Bickle off of John Wayne's character, even down to his clothes, and Harvey Keitel after Scar, hence the long hair.) Like I said, I could go on for hours.

    And yes, Taxi Drive is Scorsese's best.

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  4. When the 'protagonist' we are riding with is not as 'pure and noble' as those in the typical movies we see, it shakes up how we see ourselves and the world, maybe. It shows us life is not as black and white as some movies would have us believe. I don't know if you've ever watched the series, Oz...but you come to love these characters even though they do terrible things to each other.

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  5. I actually have the movie for months but haven't seen it since it looked violent (ah, that reason again), but you seem to like it. Not reading your review (because there's spoiler), except the very last paragraph.

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  6. @Dan Heaton: Thanks, it can feel a bit bleak to some people, yet somehow we can all relate to feeling lonely at times.

    @Shubhajit: One of my favourites by Scorsese as well. It sure is haunting, and yes, the POV is very well done. You’re right, we're in his shoes almost, we can identify with his pain even more then.

    @Alex Withrow: You’re welcome, I like to include the director, or screenwriter quotes in order to figure out the motivation behind the making. I think it’s an important film. We need to understand loneliness and violence in urban culture, so we can prevent it.
    Travis probably just wants to be noticed and loved. Thanks for The Searchers info!

    @breeezewith4Es: Films often over-simplify life, this is partly why we find comfort in them.
    Sometimes a film like Taxi Driver comes along that is similar to real life, and confronts us with problems in our culture. I think Taxi Driver somehow works, because its both arty and entertainment. I have seen a few episodes of Oz, long time ago though. In everyday life we like people who have done bad things, and learn to forgive, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do it in film or TV. Great comment, I'll check out you're site, and feel free to follow my blog!

    @Andina: There is some violence, but its not just violence for nothing, there is a point to it. Less violence than Drive. Its 95% drama. Obligatory viewing for a movie lover ( :

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  7. Taxi Driver is an absolute masterpiece.

    Robert De Niro puts on a show that will last generations and that will continue to be revered beyond his death. This was an actor that was suited for the role, in the prime of his career and with a director that knew how to get the best of him.

    The best way I can dissect the ending (perhaps in the only manner in which satisfies me) is that nothing has changed for Travis. He is still a detached and troubled man who, after carrying out such a violent act, is surprisingly treated as a hero by people who do not care to examine beyond the newspaper headline to find out what motivated this man to do what he did.
    He was by no means a hero and yet he was treated as such. His intentions were not pure, even when an argument can be made that he was not a bad man.
    It is perhaps the ultimate tragedy that a man who is almost begging for human contact can only be noticed, quite superficially I might add, after going on a murderous rampage that grabs the attention of a corrupt mass media. It is an idea that extends as a critique on modern society but that also leaves a mark as an incredibly tragic portrayal of solitude.

    Even though Scorsese has made several great and timeless pieces of film, Taxi Driver is the one that slightly stands out over the rest for me. It is a movie that stays with you forever.

    Niels

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  8. @niels85: Thanks for your impassioned comment! The ending of Taxi Driver is pretty ambiguous. Yes, its a critique of how the public is brainwashed by the sensationalism of the mass media, buying into the hero thing without ever meeting Travis.
    Just think of 9/11, the terrorists got exactly what they wanted, the media went crazy, and they got so much undeserved attention. Its so unfair, the news is dominated by negative stories.
    People who do good, get far less exposure, such as bill gates donating millions.

    Travis was tragic, probably he hasn't changed, but do we really change that much in real life? Perhaps that's what makes the film realistic that Travis stays the same.

    The ending of Taxi Driver brings into question a theme that interests me. Why do we do things? To fit in and be accepted and loved? Is our motivation to grow as human beings and achieve a personal feeling of satisfaction regardless of other peoples opinion? As we know, happiness is a very subjective term, and Travis doesn't even know maybe what will make him happy. And can a subjective- and collective success ever be separated, I think not. Life is muddy and strange that way.
    As Scorsese said (in my review) Travis is the power of the spirit on the wrong road (maybe not even being aware what is right or wrong, and not being aware what his killing spree will trigger in the headlines. Travis is also not aware that the jodie foster character maybe doesn't want to be saved. Travis does things without knowing what the reaction will be. The final scene could be Travis' dream.

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  9. Something to think about: in the last scene when we are panning through Travis' apartment and viewing the paper clippings you will notice that his television is whole and undamaged. Remember that he had kicked it over and destroyed it shortly after he purchased his weapons.

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    Replies
    1. @pilgrimpassing: Interesting, I hadn’t noticed that undamaged TV. Do you know if it was a movie mistake, or a deliberate choice by Scorsese?

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