1976. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
A cinematic journey into an urban purgatory, Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver is not only one of the most influential American films in history, but also continues to be one of the most artistically important movies ever created. Using the concepts of mental illness and post Vietnam paranoia, Taxi Driver unequivocally presents a salient exploration of the lone gunmen mythology that continues to remain disturbingly relevant 40 years later.
Travis Bickle is a veteran who suffers from depression and insomnia. He takes a job as a cab driver, working endless night shifts on the haunted streets of New York, traversing even the most dangerous neighborhoods. Travis becomes enamored with a political operative working on a presidential campaign, however the relationship rapidly erodes due to Travis’s odd predilections. In the wake of his emotional distress, Travis begins to plot the assassination of the presidential hopeful, while simultaneously trying to liberate a child prostitute from the clutches of the street, hurtling him towards one of the most brutally iconic climaxes in history.
Winning the coveted Palm d’Or at Cannes, the film’s brooding script was penned by the legendary Paul Schrader. Using Travis’s disjointed voice overs to narrate his descent into madness, Taxi Driver has a devilish quality, ruthlessly critiquing societal mores with a blistering cacophony of senseless monologues, whose uncomfortable notions slowly evolve, matching Travis’s mental undoing with verbal harmony. All of the characters that exist in Travis’s orbit are shadows, petty dispensers of street curb wisdom, tainted Madonnas, and suits full of empty promises. Each interaction, including an unforgettable cameo by Scorsese himself, is a dangerous escalation, slowly moving Travis closer to his murderous finality.
Michael Chapman’s cinematography captures the cigarette stained locales of a fallen New York with diabolic neon reds and lonely blues and greens. This is a film that wears the heart’s blood of the Big Apple on it’s soiled Army jacket sleeve, eloquently capturing the symbiosis of a festering inner city with the privileged echelons that trample upon it. The bulk of the shots are from the interior of the taxi, mimicking Travis’s longing to be part of a world he holds in contempt because he doesn’t understand it. The infamous tracking shot (which took several months to complete) uses an overhead point of view to present the aftermath of the finale as an out of body experience, further enhancing the often debated conclusion.
Using a vicious conflagration of primal instinct and last ditch endearment, De Niro creates a living urban legend in the performance of a lifetime as Travis. Within minutes, you know how the story will most likely end, but De Niro’s formidable incarnation of the troubled outsider garners a tenuous empathetic relationship with the viewer. You care, but are always questioning why and this the definition of acting. The famous “You talkin’ to me?” line is so powerful because of the way De Niro wields it, challenging the viewer to accept Travis’s deadly plea for attention, a flawless interpretation of the character’s wounded soul. Jodie Foster’s virginal Iris is a poisoned breath of fresh air, portraying an all too real child casualty of the unforgiving metropolis. Her role was so controversial that she was required to undergo a psychological evaluation prior to accepting the part to ensure she was mentally capable. Both De Niro and Foster would go on to be nominated for Academy Awards.
Peter Boyle gives a broken fortune cookie turn as Wizard, the cabbie veteran whose counsel for Travis is ill advised and perfectly simulates the false concern of bandwagon camaraderie. Harvey Keitel spent time with an actual pimp in preparation for his portrayal of Matthew, and his handful of scenes are masterfully woven into the story to ironically give Travis’s ire a legitimate target. Bernard Herrmann’s saxophone laced score is the fallen Angel on Travis’s shoulder, taking what would conventionally be a jazz infused New York love note and subverting it to display a false grandeur, fully encompassing Scorsese’s vision of a tarnished and counterfeit American dream. Herrmann’s work was also nominated for an Oscar.
Scorcese’s direction is the epitome of control. The entirety of Taxi Driver could easily be construed as a fever dream, but even the most expansive parts of Travis’s litany of hate remain grounded in the nocturnal underbelly of New York, with each street representing an infected vein feeding into a rotting heart. Scorsese’s ability to take a deceptively simple premise and produce an atmospheric chamber piece in which the prison is a city without limits is a one of kind experience. There have been many films about vengeful outcasts, but none have managed to capture the unrelenting darkness of the mind quite like Taxi Driver, a feat made possible by Scorsese’s mastery of the malign.
Available now for digital rental, Taxi Driver is an essential American film that uses the mental disarray of a lone wolf as an expose’ on a fractured, post war America. From the way veteran’s were casually discarded to the political distrust that gripped the nation, Taxi Driver depicts a plausible Hell on Earth in which the devil is not only very real, but nihilistic and motivated, a concept that continues to remain frighteningly realistic to this day.
Highly. Highly. Recommend.