In the year of America’s Bicentennial, director Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver, a slow-boiling film noir about what he regards as America’s depravity. This is an involving movie, like almost all of Mr. Scorsese’s pictures. It’s engrossing for various reasons. He’s a master moviemaker and his highly prophetic Taxi Driver is about something gone terribly wrong that became deeply serious, prevalent and epidemic; the nervous breakdown certain types of men have in our fouled up, confused, post-Vietnam War, post-Kantian, mid-20th century America. If it seems like the world’s going mad — and who can seriously doubt that it does — Taxi Driver dramatizes this pathology in painstaking detail.
Of course, this doesn’t make Taxi Driver pleasant to watch. In fact, it’s repulsive, it’s flawed — like many of Mr. Scorsese’s films, it’s over the top in its derangement, even campy — and it is as confused as almost every other part of the modern age. But it’s not vacuous like a Marvel movie. It’s got goods to show and tell. There are lives — real lives, not flashes of wisecracking artificial figures popping up and down like Easter eggs in a hunt — at stake.
The climax doesn’t let you down as much as it lets you build up your own fantasy for its title character, played by skinny Robert De Niro. This way, the jarring nature of what happens to the cab driver and the assorted subjects of his psychotic fixations plays into whatever you had in mind. In this sense, Taxi Driver is a puzzle.
The 1976 picture’s a richly textured, vibrantly bloody movie — not a grainy, muted and quietly triumphant movie, like 1976’s Best Picture winner, Rocky. Though both films depict dark-haired loners out of luck in life with an opportunity to remake himself with a whole new goal and the woman of his dreams by his side, Taxi Driver is the flashier, fancier, prettier picture in its depiction of man as mass murderer. In forecasting the bleak future we’re living in — surrounded by silent, creeping sociopaths going postal in mass shootings every other week (or every other day) — Taxi Driver endures because its prettiness makes it seem like an exercise; a thoughtfully arranged death picture show for everyone to enjoy. Are you not entertained? By contrast, Rocky is the picture that really challenges the audience to think about what victory means.
Taxi Driver opens in silence with red on black titles. Within seconds, an assaultive score blasts as exhaust fumes appear, A taxi creeps forward with menace. Bernard Herrmann’s disturbing score — this is his last movie before he died on Christmas Eve after scoring it while staying at LA’s Sheraton Universal — accentuates a close-up of the driver’s eyes sneering at everyone in his vision.
Applying for a job, this disaffected young white male without a formal education — a malcontent claiming to be an ex-Marine (the audience never sees evidence that his assertion is true) — is immediately unsympathetic. Walking the wide, filthy New York City sidewalk while drinking alcohol, his narration begins as the camera cuts to him writing in a journal with a can of Coke and a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder nearby.
Welcome to the dark, depraved, bombastic world of Travis Bickle. See, even his name is contrived, thanks to Paul Schrader’s film noir screenplay. With that miserable blood porn movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre playing at the local theater and an electronic pink sign reading “Fascination” in plain if obvious view, newly hired cabbie Bickle’s narrative soon denounces gays and prostitutes and he warns the audience that he hopes “that someday rain will come and wipe all the dirt off the streets…”
So, you instantly know that this is what the movie will render. Then, just as plainly, Bickle provides an admission which pronounces Taxi Driver’s nihilistic theme — he shrugs after more of the anxious score that everything and nothing “don’t make no difference to me”.
Driving through broken water infrastructure, which cleanses the taxi cab as he returns it to base, this is the movie’s essential theme.
Bickle pops pills, whines about having “to clean the cum off the backseat”, goes to an X-rated theater to watch a pornography movie and can’t sleep. But, soon, he sights Cybill Shepherd, as vapid and nihilistic as Bickle is, really, as the movie’s ending reveals, as his fantasy in virginal white. Cue Albert Brooks as the prototypically sexless, emasculated male who will also come to define the American male in the future. That this bland, flat-toned pair, who drone on and on about nothing in particular, work on a major presidential campaign is Taxi Driver’s dig at idealism. They’re there to show that the smartest, the prettiest, the most desirable in America’s top city know that nothing really matters.
This idea applies to every character in the movie, from those already mentioned to the fellow cabbies and other lowlifes that cross Bickle’s path, the cashier at the adult movie theater and the 12-year-old hooker played by Jodie Foster. Even a Secret Service agent protecting the presidential candidate — and, of course, the candidate himself — act like they’re barely interested in what they’re doing for a living. Nobody cares, Taxi Driver shrugs as it slouches and slugs around on wet pavement with leering, lingering voyeurism.
Yet the deliberations deliver compelling drama, too, in small episodes with mixed signals, with traffic lights literally turning red as Bickle struggles with his virgin/whore dichotomy when he goes from stalking Shepherd’s woman in white to Foster’s girl in hot pants in the red light district. It all gets chronicled in his journal, as in this year’s scathing Joker, from late spring to mid-summer.
In the meantime, the cabbie’s dubbed “a prophet and a pusher” and his taxi gets pelted with eggs by thugs in a bad part of town. Slowly, insidiously, director Martin Scorsese, who also plays a heinously murderous, racist husband in the cab’s backseat that plants the seed that puts Bickle over the edge, laces the plot with clues.
While assembling an arsenal that predicts the Columbine, Las Vegas and other American massacres, Bickle goes through the motions of reaching out for help in resolving his confused, delusional Puritanical/seedy dilemma. The resultant plot points bear this out and represent Taxi Driver’s deepest flaw: it depicts a fantasy more than it dramatizes any part of reality.
It’s not that any one part of the nightmare fantasy couldn’t happen in reality. It’s more that each part of the whole mosaic — the puzzle as a whole when the storyteller reveals the big picture — doesn’t fit. In order to achieve the effect that the monster in the closet roams the streets unchecked, pretty much with this sick, American society’s sanction and abandon, Taxi Driver has to render Bickle both deranged enough to give himself a Mohawk and disciplined enough to remain composed, restrained and outwardly decent.
Too many plot inconsistencies, notably his three hairdos, get in the way. To believe the movie’s end point plausible one would have to think everyone in New York City, from cops and cabbies to Secret Service agents, campaign managers and 12-year-old hookers, is daft. A dance between Harvey Keitel’s pedophile pimp and Foster’s sex trafficked child adds nothing and detracts from plot momentum. Similarly, a song by Jackson Browne exists to add character depth but merely adds drudgery and drags the plot. A lingering, melodramatic overhead shot of the aftermath — and long shots of bloody walls, stairs and guns with a slow drumbeat — amid corpses drops Taxi Driver back in the blood red where it begins.
You watch because Mr. Scorsese, whatever his dark, depraved and nihilistic sensibility and melodramatic inclinations, seals his films with intelligence, insight and neatly smoothed and folded corners.
Look at the scene outside Manhattan’s Belmore cafeteria, for instance, before Peter Boyle’s taxi driver drives off after having dispensed pablum as advice, stupidly insisting that Bickle is “going to be OK” without regard to Bickle’s call for help, as ominous music sounds. The relationship between the two men has been Bickle’s only bridge to reality. Boyle’s character to a certain degree balances the sleaze and decency factors, which on some level Bickle notices, observes and cultivates. That at the precise moment he calls upon this leader of the cab drivers for help and is totally abandoned is as deflating as it is unsurprising.
This is careful seeding on the director’s part. He doesn’t let the audience believe in the good of Boyle’s taxi driver. He doesn’t give you reason to believe. But he lets the cast of characters play with a sense of bonding and mentorship that seasons the cabby diner scenes with a sense of possibility.
It’s the same with Foster’s Steensman character. She behaves with Bickle like she’s both a girl, eating peanut butter and jelly, and like she’s a junkie, lush and whore. There’s never any doubt that she’s gone bad. But, just when you’re thinking maybe she’s capable at 12 of being good, she starts rambling about going to a commune in Vermont. And then you know how warped and gone she really is. This is what makes the seduction scene with Keitel superfluous and unnecessary, taking you out of the movie.
The Steensman-Bickle relationship forms the real basis for Taxi Driver’s theme that evil lurks everywhere and there’s nothing you can do about it — nothing really matters — values “don’t make no difference” to anyone — because the impetus for everything that might be of value to Bickle is also a delusion. Not only does the taxi driver forever loom to strike you down; the prostitute taunts you into letting your guard down in advance of the downing.
With death and sex intermingled decades before Steven Spielberg depicted an Israeli avenger as a kind of lone wolf monster in Munich, Taxi Driver echoes this warped ideal. Like The Man Who Laughs, the Victor Hugo novel which launched movie versions and the Batman comic book villain, the Joker, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in a chilling performance show that wanting to love and be loved as you are will destroy your soul.
But not your body and this is Taxi Driver’s grim and grisly fairy tale prophecy that came true after its 1976 release. “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence,” Thomas Wolfe wrote in the literature which spawned this refined motion picture.
That you are totally doomed to be lonely is the essence of what Taxi Driver, down to its generic title, exists to express.