Easily one of the 10 best American films of the 1970s, Taxi Driver radically changed Robert De Niro’s career, establishing him as a first-class character actor.
The reason is blatantly obvious to everyone watching this powerful film by director Martin Scorsese, which sent De Niro into the ranks of superstardom.
Scorsese gives a brutally disturbing account of a lonely and psychotic New York cabbie. The experience evokes mixed emotions; it’s depressing, violent, and cynical – yet undeniably brilliant.
Travis Bickle (De Niro) is a Vietnam veteran who can’t sleep at night as a result of his war trauma.
To pass the time, he takes on a job as a cab driver in New York, covering some of the darkest suburbs and areas the city has to offer.
He is lonely and incapable of social contact. Every one of his attempts to mingle with people ends in another disappointment.
He takes out Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a young election campaign worker and invites her to a porn movie on their first night out. Her terror is beyond his grasp, and his attempt to suck up to a politician leaves the man completely suspicious.
Travis is entirely unable to communicate with society and is left to himself. He is sickened by the decay of society, and the scum he sees on the streets every day from his cab – and his inner fury is growing on a daily basis.
The only person he ends up talking to is himself in the mirror. But even that conversation is reduced to paraphrases like “You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here”.
With growing disgust, Travis feels he needs to change things for the better. Since politicians fail to clean up the city, someone else has to do it.
When he meets 12-year-old hooker Iris (Jodie Foster), his entire world starts to revolve around the thought of liberating her from her pimp and her destiny in the gutters.
With a seemingly newfound identity and a combat cut, he returns to the streets armed to the eyeballs and brings about a retaliating massacre.
No other actor has ever played a removed anti-social anti-hero, and his fight against urban decadence and his own dark personality as powerful as De Niro did in Taxi Driver.
His accumulated frustration is relieving itself in almost liberating violence that is beyond ordinary people’s comprehension.
De Niro prepared for Taxi Driver by driving a real New York cab for a month. He was spotted only twice, once by a sympathetic fare who said, “You’re the actor, huh? Guess it’s hard to find steady work”.
Masterfully combined with director Scorsese’s visual language and cinematographer Michael Chapman’s photography, Bickle and his yellow taxi have become synonymous with loneliness, desperation and the search for identity.
Taxi Driver already shows Scorsese’s unique directing style. Like most of his films, it develops rather slowly, giving the viewer time to elaborate on what he is seeing.
Slowly the narrative builds and gears towards an inevitable climax, but still, it keeps building slowly, yet consistently.
When the film finally reaches its peak in the shootout, we know that Travis has made his point, although the execution is rather dubious and obviously not to be recommended.
It is exactly the kind of exaggerated action you’d expect from an emotionally crippled person in that situation, and although he tries to do good, he does so in an inexcusable, almost mob-like manner.
Like in most of Scorsese’s films, his characters are dark but never eternally black. They hate themselves and know they are doomed.
Still, they can become heroes in their own worlds, which makes their lives tolerable.
It also bears the problem that the film’s final resolution might not be a satisfying one on an emotional level.
This is certainly why Scorsese included an ending sequence to the film that shows us Travis Bickle as a hero instead of a freak. Whether the ending is true or just a delirious illusion of the dying Travis remains open to interpretation.
Paul Schrader’s screenplay is his finest so far, and the film is haunting and unforgettable.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (De Niro); Best Supporting Actress (Foster).
Robert De Niro