March Issue 2013
Classic Film Review: Taxi Driver
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, as seen through the eyes of an unstable and unreliable narrator, Travis Bickle, 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 Travis’ 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 his isolation, the suffocating monotony of his job and his disgust with the outside world. As he stares at an aspirin dissolving in a glass of 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.
During their first date, Betsy quotes a Kris Kristofferson song: “He’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction – a walking contradiction.” Betsy, despite her own naivetÃ© and short-sightedness, gives viewers the sharpest insight into Travis. Travis shows signs of extreme misanthropy, yet expresses a desire to be like others. He harbours hatred towards prostitutes, yet spends most of his free time at porn theatres, where he takes Betsy on their second (and last) date. It appears that Travis’ disgust with the world is also a disgust with himself. Betsy’s rejection of him is the tipping point that sends him over the edge. The famous scene where Travis addresses himself in the mirror, improvised by De Niro, shows the point of his madness. He develops an unhealthy obsession for Palantine and shaves off his hair to sport a mohawk. From a lonely and sympathetic figure, Travis deviates into a cold-blooded vigilante.
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 sociopath really become a public hero?
This review was originally published in Newsline’s March 2013 issue under the headline, “A Walking Contradiction.”
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.
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