Bucket List Movie #472: Taxi Driver (1976)
You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking... you talking to me? Well I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're talking to? Oh yeah? OK.~ Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver.
Incredible how an instantly quotable line can change everything, isn't it? Robert De Niro was hardly unknown at the time of Taxi Driver's release; after all, he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for The Godfather Part II, and was creating critical waves left and right throughout the 70s, yet Taxi Driver, I feel, made him a legitimate, bankable star. This is where De Niro became De Niro, one of the last great students of the Method who specialized in playing characters you instantly knew better than to mess with.
So it's another day, another Scorsese BLM.
Taxi Driver is another anti-love letter to New York. The New York of Mean Streets looks like the entrance to Disney World by comparison. This Big Apple is rotten to the core and riddled with worms.
We are introduced to one of cinema's most memorable losers, Travis Bickle (De Niro). A Vietnam vet who works graveyard shifts as a cabbie to distract himself from his insomnia, Travis mentally waxes poetic about how crime and corruption envelop the city, and how he longs for the "slime" of the streets to be washed away. He's like a Flanery O'Connor character who was transplanted from the deep south to New York. That he thinks about the misery of the world a little too often, and that he has way too much alone time, are early indicators that Travis is a few needles short of a pine tree. When he's not brooding over the misery of the world, Travis listlessly devours junk food, patiently listens to passengers who are sometimes crazier than he is (including Scorsese, in a darkly funny cameo), and going to the local porn theatre, where he watches with involvement, but oddly little arousal.
Travis falls in love at first sight with campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who is introduced in slow motion (another Scorsese trademark), dressed in virginal white. Travis is enamored with this earthly angel and dares to ask her out. Betsy, showing either a kinder heart or more questionable judgment than most women, meets Travis for an innocent lunch date. Travis then proceeds to shoot himself in the foot when, for their first official date, he takes her to a porn film. Betsy is understandably disgusted and leaves him.
Travis creepily stalks her for a while (and the only person who comes to her aid is some dork named Tom, played by an impossibly young Albert Brooks), but soon finds a new obsession to focus on: Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute who is mistreated by her repulsive, manipulative pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel, looking vaguely Tommy Wiseau-like). Travis decides that he can rescue Iris from her wanton life, and determines to do just that, despite her protestations that she's all right with her life. Travis's romantic and personal frustrations, his confusion about his place in the world, and his desperation for validation come to a head when he's able to get firearms (that's why we have gun control folks) and wreaks his holy vengeance on the wrong- well, okay, the right- people.
I was loving Taxi Driver as I watched it. I want to love it now, but I feel the ending ruins it for me. So Travis dons a mohawk, tracks down Sport and a grimy brothel owner, shoots them up, they shoot back, and we're treated to a glorious, slow pan from above as it appears Travis has died. Is this supposed to be Travis's spirit? Is he seeing the destruction he's wreaked in front of poor, doubtlessly traumatized Iris? Is he taking one last look at the slimy city he loathes before shuffling off this mortal coil and into that great cab depot in the sky?
NOPE! He lives! He spends time in the hospital but is back to work in months, Iris is sent back to her parents (even though we're never made privy as to why she ran away, so for all we know, she's gone from one abusive environment to another), Travis is hailed as a hero in the press, but the nail in my coffin of positive regard? Travis gives Betsy a ride home, and Betsy is warm and friendly to the creepy weirdo who dragged her to a porn film for a date and then stalked her, but hey! Why shouldn't she be on good terms with the creeper who stalked her at her job?! Unless Scorsese is making a satirical point about how celebrity, not time, heals all wounds, which is actually infuriating, because it gives this entertaining, intelligent film a smug, self-righteous tone that leaves a horrid taste in the mouth. I was desperately hoping for a twist, a la "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", where it turns out that Travis really is dead, but if that's the case, we sure don't see it, so I can only take it on faith that wackjob Travis's life is hunky dory now.
Dammit, Scorsese, you were doing a great job portraying a very particular person, the cold, irrefutable reality of life, the consequences of bad choices, and everything turns out great for this deeply disturbed man? What the hell? Look, I'm glad Scorsese neither judged or condoned Travis, but Travis is still a psycho and a creep, and he's likely to remain one! Having good things happen to him won't change that! He needs psychiatric attention and meds, not a contrived happy ending! Was Scorsese trying to make his own tale of redemption, his own Christmas Carol, if you will? If so, he failed terribly, since Travis certainly isn't made aware that vigilantism, stalking, obsession, and violence are all wrong!
END OF SPOILERS
The above rant is strictly my opinion, of course, to be taken with a near microscopic grain of salt. Other than that, Taxi Driver is a damned fine film, and while De Niro has never been my favorite actor (I think the best actor of that generation was Dustin Hoffman), he fully inhabits the role of Travis, and to my fellow ladies out there, we've all met Travis-like characters in our everyday lives. In an early scene, Travis tries to force his uncomfortable brand of "politeness" on a checkout girl at the porn theatre. He stands too close, is persistent in his "friendliness" and is threatening in a light, easy manner. How many times have we encountered men like that on the bus, at a restaurant, at a club, where we just want to be left alone, but they take our objections as rudeness and try to play on our feminine impulse to be polite? It's a brief but disturbing scene, because it's happened to all of us.
The most interesting (if repellent) thing about Travis is the odd way his Madonna-whore complex manifests itself. He falls for his "Madonna", Betsy, but his first impulse is to taint her by taking her to a porn film. He grows obsessed and protective of "whore" Iris, and wants to send her back to her innocent "Madonna" phase however he can. What he fails to see is that Betsy is just an average woman, neither Madonna nor whore. Likewise, Iris isn't a fallen angel, but just a girl with her own complex issues, and she might be able to stop being a prostitute, but she can never revert to innocence, no matter how Travis wishes her to.
If you want to see a powerhouse performance by a child actor, 13-year-old Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver will take your breath away. Her screen time is less than 30 minutes, but she is unbelievably memorable and possesses a talent and presence most adults only wish they had. She plays Iris with confidence, but with shaky conviction. It's never made clear if Iris is fully aware of how dangerous her life really is, and it's shown that Iris may be precocious, but she's not as smart she thinks she is (when boasting of her knowledge of the Zodiac, she cheerfully pegs Travis as a "Scorpion"). Again, she's just a kid. Unlike Louis Malle's salacious Pretty Baby two years later (with Brooke Shields), Scorsese manages not to cross the line into empty shock value with Foster (the most skin she shows is a bare shoulder). Instead of Taxi Driver being controversial enough to end her career, Foster continued to go strong. She even starred in Disney's Freaky Friday just a year later, without anyone batting an eyelash. Pure luck, or deft skill? You make the call.
Taxi Driver was the final film the great Bernard Hermann scored before his death, and it's a haunting mix of bluesy jazz and discordant menace, the perfect music for this unsettling urban fable. So maybe you like the end of Taxi Driver (I'm sure everyone will make a good argument for it), or maybe you don't, but one thing we can agree on is that it's still one of Scorsese's greatest.