March Issue 2013

By | Here and Now | Published 7 years ago

Taxi Driver (1­­976), directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro, is a cinematic masterpiece that can be watched multiple times, with new details surfacing with each viewing. It is a film about the underbelly of New York – a world of gangs, prostitutes, pimps, racism and misogyny – as seen through the eyes of an unstable and unreliable narrator, Travis Bickle.

Bickle is a discharged US marine who becomes a taxi driver to battle insomnia. The opening shot shows a taxi cab moving ominously through smoke, creating the sense of something mysterious and threatening. Scorsese then cuts to a close-up of Bickle’s tired but watchful eyes and establishes that the film is closely aligned with his perspective. The use of bright neon lights, out-of-focus camera and soft ambient music all add to the sleaziness of his surroundings. Travis’ daily interactions with others – in particular, women – appear rather clumsy and awkward, and his deepest thoughts are revealed only through recordings in his diary. Through these recordings, we sense the extent of Travis’ isolation, the suffocating monotony of his job and his disgust with the outside world. As he stares at an aspirin dissolving in water, bubbling and bursting, we sense that Travis is a man on the edge, who could explode without warning at any moment. Bernard Hermann’s score reflects Travis’ unpredictable moods, shifting suddenly from soft, melodic jazz pieces to more menacing notes.

As the backdrop to Travis’ story, senator Charles Palantine is running for president. Travis first spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) at Palantine’s campaign headquarters; she appears to him in a white dress “like an angel, out of this filthy mess.” Travis is drawn to the few individuals he feels are pure in a city of sinners and “scum,” and we see this again later on when he tries to befriend and protect Iris (Jodie Foster), a child prostitute.

As the backdrop to Travis’ story, senator Charles Palantine is running for president. Travis first spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) at Palantine’s campaign headquarters; she appears to him in a white dress “like an angel, out of this filthy mess.” Travis is drawn to the few individuals he feels are pure in a city of sinners and “scum,” and we see this again later on when he tries to befriend and protect Iris (Jodie Foster), a child prostitute.

What is both remarkable and frightening about the film is the number of viewers who said they could relate to Travis’ sense of alienation and misanthropy, including the assassin of Ronald Reagan.

The end is ambiguous, and there is debate as to whether the violent climax and Travis’ subsequent redemption was merely a figment of his sleep-deprived and drugged imagination, or did a psychopath really become a hero. Was Travis a narcissistic psychopath or a noble vigilante?

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.