Monday, February 21, 2011

Taxi Driver (1976)

          “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” That snippet of voiceover, an excerpt from the apocalyptic interior monologue of New York City cabbie Travis Bickle, gets to the heart of what makes Taxi Driver so intense: Instead of simply throwing a monster onscreen for lurid spectacle, the psychologically provocative drama takes us deep inside a man who does monstrous things for reasons he considers unassailably virtuous. As brilliantly realized by director Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader’s astonishing script introduces viewers to Vietnam vet Travis (Robert De Niro), an insomniac loner cruising the nighttime streets of the city within the self-imposed prison of a metal coffin on four wheels. His unique vantage point exposes him to the worst the city has to offer, the junkies and pimps and psychos, so his PTSD and whatever else is cooking inside his troubled brain compel him toward a “righteous” mission with a body count. Disturbing but mesmerizing, Travis’ journey is a profound exploration of the ennui chewing at the outer edges of America’s collective unconscious.
          The story elements are simple but audacious. Travis becomes preoccupied with two women, a polished campaign worker named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and an underage prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). So disassociated that he can’t remember how to relate to people normally, Travis takes Betsy on an excruciatingly awful date to a low-rent porno movie, and presents himself as Iris’ savior even though she doesn’t believe she needs to be saved. Zeroing in on men he perceives as enemies, Travis targets Betsy’s politician boss and Iris’ pimp, leading our “hero” to arm himself for battle with an arsenal of illegal handguns. By the time Travis sits alone in his apartment, practicing his quick-draw with a cannon-sized pistol and a shoulder holster while delivering his infamous “You talkin’ to me?” soliloquy, viewers know they’ve been drawn into a nightmare.
          Scorsese’s camerawork and dramaturgy are extraordinary, infusing scenes with lived-in reality while never departing from the dreamlike stylization that makes Taxi Driver feel like a horrific fable; with the heavy shadows of Michael Chapman’s photography and the pulsing waves of Bernard Hermann’s insidious score, Scorsese achieves something like cinematic alchemy. In front of the camera, De Niro gives a selfless performance that channels Schrader’s vision of a lost soul who can’t differentiate idealism from insanity, becoming a figure of almost otherworldly menace. As the opposite ends of Travis imagined romantic spectrum, Foster nails the ephemeral idea of a jaded innocent, while Shepherd’s chilly inaccessibility is perfectly fitting. Comedian Albert Brooks provides helpful levity as Betsy’s coworker, Peter Boyle adds worldliness as one of Travis’ fellow cabbies, Harvey Keitel lends seedy color as Iris’ pimp, and Scorsese appears in a startling cameo that illustrates how deeply he saw into the meaning of this allegorical phantasmagoria.
          A breakthrough for everyone involved, Taxi Driver plays out like the anguished cry of a society in need of deliverance, filtered through the twisted worldview of someone damaged and discarded by that very society.

Taxi Driver: OUTTA SIGHT


Will Errickson said...

Spot-on review of a movie I consider, despite its minor production faults, the quintessential American film of the last 5 decades. And one that gets truer every year. Alas.

jf said...

I just read Manny Farber's take on this film. I especially liked his observations on Travis's inconsistent characterization. Farber fires dozens of holes through the film, but still seems genuinely admiring.

Unknown said...

Peter Hanson, this is a magnificent assessment of a difficult, disturbing but absolutely brilliant film. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Hi Peter,

Great review. It disturbed the f*ck out of me when I first saw it (I was 17) but still watch it every 2 or 3 years. I can handle it better now (lol).

btw, have you seen "Deadly Strangers" starring Hayley Mills? Looks like you haven't reviewed it. It's from the mid-'70s. Youtube has it for free.

Also, a while back on another thread, I mentioned the movie "Cactus in the Snow" starring Richard Thomas. It's a motion picture, not a TV movie and it's very hard to find. Hopefully you've done some searching for it.

Hope all is well!

By Peter Hanson said...

"Deadly Strangers" is a minor UK movie so it's unlikely to get reviewed here. "Cactus in the Snow" is on my list but I've yet to put my eyeballs on a copy. Perhaps someday.