TAXI DRIVER (1976)

Rober De Niro in a still from Taxi Driver
  • Release Date: 08/02/1976
  • Cast: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster, Martin Scorsese, Leonard Harris
  • Director: Martin Scorsese

One of those near-perfect films that make you uncomfortable in all the right and wrong ways

I had never been alone in my life before the last few weeks and hence I never understood Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver fully. This is a film about loneliness and its implications on an individual who cannot cope with it. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is an ex-marine who is incapable of finding solace in the company that he has and isn’t very effective in finding companionship. Every now and then when he likes someone, he is invariably turned down because of his odd approaches that make him appear more like a creep than a person looking for meaningful connection. He cannot bring himself to sleep even after 12 hours of work. After work, he spends his time at the local porno theater. He likes the girl at the food counter and tries to strike up a conversation with her but she takes him to be someone whose intentions are questionable and refuses to carry forward the discussion. Bickle spends hours watching porn even though it doesn’t have the kind of impact that porn is supposed to have on an individual. Instead, he slips into his own daydreams that have no connection with porn.

Travis soon lays eyes on the beautiful Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) who works at Charles Palantine’s election campaign office and falls for her. He musters up the courage to ask her out and strangely his oddball charm works on Betsy who agrees to go out with him. Bickle finally seems to be hitting the right notes with someone he likes when he does something terrible on a date that makes Betsy despise him. He tries to get back with her but she throws him out of her life unceremoniously. At about the same time, Travis crosses path with a minor girl a few times who seems to be forced into prostitution. Betsy’s sudden rejection of him and his inability to comprehend what wrong he has done to deserve her wrath proves to be the last nail in the coffin as Travis is finally pushed over the edge. He starts looking at all that is wrong around him or that he believes is wrong with a skewed perspective and decides to take matters into his own hands. He decides not only to liberate Betsy from the campaign of Palantine but also zeroes in on rescuing the minor girl from the clasp of her pimp who is someone he truly despises.

Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in a still from Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver is a film that will not make much sense to someone who hasn’t experienced loneliness before even if it is to a smaller degree. I watched the film before but I couldn’t relate to it as I didn’t have the kind of maturity that was needed to understand the themes that it was going for and also that I hadn’t experienced loneliness before. Having been completely alone for the last 20 days or so, after the demise of my parents on the same day, I finally realized what it means to be alone and what it does to your mind. There are moments when I feel like crying. There are moments when I feel free. There are moments when I feel empowered and then there are moments when I feel like doing something to right all the wrongs around me by employing drastic measures. I can now relate with the character of Travis Bickle and while many view him as someone who was deranged, I know that he was not and whatever he was doing made perfect sense to him.

Robert De Niro delivers one of the best performances ever by an actor in any role and it is his performance that gives meaning to a film that transcended every notion of what a film of the 1970s should be. Scorsese uses De Niro’s expressions as a means to propagate his story as the film essentially banks on the dilapidating state of mind of Travis and what that condition makes him do. He is not crazy but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that he was living in his own altered reality. A reality in which he was all-powerful, righteous, and was not afraid to do what was right and what should be done including delivering swift justice to criminals and ensuring that a damsel in distress is freed of their influence and control.

Jodie Foster in a still from Taxi Driver

De Niro meets Cybill Shepherd for the first time and offers to volunteer for Charles Palantine. Shepherd in a few quick questions understands that De Niro knows nothing about Palantine and might not be actually interested in volunteering for his campaign. Yet she cannot help but be drawn to this man and his gaze. De Niro sells this scene with his exceptional rendering of what someone like Travis would do or say under such circumstances. As the sequence proceeds to the next bit where we see the two share a meal over chit chat, De Niro, in the most emotional manner possible, tries to detract Shepherd from giving in to the advances of one of her colleagues at work. His expressions and words resonated with me in a manner similar to how it resonated with Betsy’s character. The same De Niro looks bonkers in a scene where he attends a Palantine rally, walks up to a secret service personnel, and starts asking questions that make him a person of interest for the secret services. They nearly arrest him.

De Niro shares two scenes with Jodie Foster who plays the minor girl forced into prostitution. In these scenes, he shows a side of his that came as a major shock to me. He speaks to her like a guarding angel and one could see Foster melt as Travis shows warmth, care, and concern for her. She agrees to have breakfast with him the next day and Travis continues in the same line of discussion with her about her getting out of her demented existence. In the end, he tells her that he will lend her the money that she needs to get out and that he might be gone for some time. Foster’s reaction to these words is subtle but one can make out that she has started connecting with Travis emotionally. The chemistry that De Niro shares with Jodie Foster is instantaneous and it is so infectious that it gets on to you from the moment they run into each other. I cannot praise Jodi Foster enough here who showed all the signs of that terrific actress she was en-route to becoming.

Robert De Niro in a still from Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese himself stars in two short scenes in the film. The first time we see him is when we are introduced to Betsy as she is walking into her office building. One can catch a glimpse of Scorsese sitting on some stairs and acknowledging her beauty and exuberance. The next time we see him; he is in Travis’ taxi and is spying on his wife who, he informs Travis, is having an affair with an African-American. He proceeds to tell Travis what he plans to do to his wife’s face and private parts with a .44 Magnum. This brief scene has an overbearing on Travis who is already in a very delicate state of mind. Scorsese milks these scenes to the last ounce of drama, theatricality, and shock value. Harvey Keitel has been an integral part of many Scorsese projects. He makes his presence felt in a brief cameo here.

Taxi Driver is memorable as much for the performances as it is for Martin Scorsese’s astute direction. He shoots the film in a way that helps us to see the version of the city that Travis despises. The camera lingers on De Niro from time to time allowing him to just emote without saying a single word of dialogue and it is these silences that howl louder than any beast in the wild. By keeping De Niro silent, Scorsese lets the viewer fill up the gaps in the pauses with their own interpretation of what might be going on in Travis’ mind and that is something that makes these sequences extraordinary and haunting. In terms of the visuals and presentation, Scorsese uses various tricks that he admitted to having picked out of some of the films that had a profound impact on him in his formative years. However, he embraces these influences and uses them in the context of his film in such a way that they assume their own character and relevance. The look and feel of the film are also in strong keeping with the subject matter. I just loved the tone that the film stock used gives the film.

Taxi Driver is a very difficult film to review as it is so dense and self-aware. One can practically pick out any scene from the film and write about it for pages. However, it is also a kind of film that needs a specific mindset and inclination to understand fully. It is not one of those universally accessible and highly entertaining works (Goodfellas, Casino, and The Irishman) that Scorsese is renowned for. I will be watching this film a lot many times more in the future and I am confident that each viewing will dawn something new in terms of nuances and drama for me. It is one of those rare films that are perfect.

Rating: 5/5 (5 out of 5 Stars)

Here is the link to the film:

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