A seamless collaboration between cast, score, screenplay and direction firmly place Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as an ageless classic
Rating: 5.0 out of 5
The film’s iconic opening sets the tone – a taxi emerges from the sewer steam rising from the street and rolls through downtown New York. Fluorescent lights reflect off the wet taxi, the sidewalk and the road. Glowing signs – “XXX” “Live Shows” “Live Girls” – emerge from the darkness, and are swallowed back into it as the taxi passes. This is a decaying New York, the underbelly of 42nd street. Away from the glass-plated doors and glittering skyscrapers of Wall Street, we see the cracks, the bits in-between, the aggressive buying and selling of sex, the drugs, the creeps, perverts and psychopaths. Set during the late seventies during a peak of drugs and prostitution, the film presents a dystopian city – this is impressionistic direction at its finest. This is not, however, a film about New York. It is about a man – a Vietnam veteran, who has been spat out, abandoned and wounded by the city he lives in.
Suffering from insomnia, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) endlessly drives his taxi to the ends of the night, possessed by an ambiguous need to either cleanse or destroy the squalor and filth of the streets. He is repulsed by the sights, but is also compelled by them; they confirm his obsessive tendencies and focus his anger. Whilst he could work anywhere in the city, he returns time and time again to 42nd street the way an addict returns to their vice. He hates New York.
Drifting though the city, utterly estranged from its denizens, Travis’ brief episodes with those he meets act only as an amplification of his loneliness – he is repeatedly rejected throughout the film, shut out from contact and communication. The most significant of theses rejections is by Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a beautiful blonde who emerges from the crowd as a vision in white; a visual representation of purity. He unconsciously offends her by taking her to a hardcore film, and is eventually rejected altogether by her. There is a moment following this, that film critic Roger Ebert notes is, “the heart of the movie.” Travis calls Betsy for another date from a pay phone. Whilst he talks, the camera pans away from the acton and instead focuses down an empty corridor. Scorsese says this shot is the most important one in the film, because “It’s as if we can’t bear to watch Travis’ pain of being rejected”, which, as Ebert summarises: “…is interesting, because later, when Travis goes on a killing rampage, the camera goes so far as to adopt slow motion so we can see the horror in greater detail.”
The suffocation of the traffic, the packed streets, the sleaze and the filth builds up a tension – an uncomfortable sensuality. We are given close-up shots of Travis’ bloodshot eyes and barely contained fury – he looks both stunned and exhausted, and speaks with the deliberate control of a man withholding a scream. His frustration and repeated social failures intensifies his simmering anger, and we see him pacing his room like a caged animal or staring at the TV. New York is hot and claustrophobic, and Travis has no release. Frustrated, he finally reverts to his marine days by training and purifying his body, conditioning himself into a killer. He fought in Vietnam. He knows how to kill. His inability to confront his loneliness finally drives him to take on the role of moral crusader: in an attempt to hurt Betsy, he plots to kill Palentine, the man she is working for. When this fails, he targets another father figure – the pimp of a 12 year-old prostitute (played by Jodie Foster).
The blood-splattered ending comes as a cathartic release and the camera finally pans above in an areal view of the dreadful scene. It is as if Travis has, in fact, died, and is viewing New York through a new, superior angle. He begins the film looking in on the action from the outside, uses violence to burst his way into it, then achieves spiritual transcendence through ultra-violence. Horrifying as it is, this conclusion seems to be Travis’s only means of making the city aware of his presence. Before the violence, Travis glares at the camera; after, he stares at us, pacified, for the time being.
Scorsese chooses precisely what he wants us to see throughout Taxi Driver. Hellish images of the city are carefully and periodically revealed and hidden from us, some illuminated by fluorescent lights , some veiled by the night. He hides Travis’ rejection from us because it’s too painful to watch. Our hero is suffering and this is the final straw. Conversely, he shows us the violent ending in awful detail. His is a lonely life, and his isolation is depicted in the most profound way. The city is indifferent, and not once are we spared these visions – we are forced to see it as Travis sees it, and we feel his alienation.