Review: “Taxi Driver” (1976)

Although Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) has some “bad ideas” in his head, those thoughts aren’t half as frightening as the man who’s thinking them — not because he’s a monster, but because he isn’t. There’s nothing monstrous about him. With his rumpled shirt and friendly manner, he seems … average, just a regular working man who wants his life to have “a sense of someplace to go.” But rejection, isolation and fear do strange, scary things a man, so it doesn’t take long for Travis to construct another reality, one based on paranoia, a thirst for justice, a desire to be heard. And he means to make to make sorry every last person who didn’t care enough to listen. 

Doubtless this is where Martin Scorcese’s eerie, savage and deeply unsettling “Taxi Driver” hits the hardest: in showing just how close Travis, a well-meaning loner who wants desperately to connect with anyone, is to his breaking point, and just how close we are to ours. Scorcese and DeNiro are unflinching in their portrayal of Bickle’s slow but completely believable descent into a world of delusions and violence. Both director and actor are painstakingly deliberate in their work, with Scorcese’s every shot providing silent insights into Bickle and DeNiro’s every look and expression — his bizarre smiles are extraordinarily effective — suggesting this quiet man is coming apart at the seams. From the moment the opening credits roll, it’s merely a question of what happens when the last thread gets pulled.

The opening credits, with Michael Chapman’s cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score, do much to create the surreal atmosphere and tone of unease in “Taxi Driver.” Glimpsed through the smeary, rain-soaked windshield of a cab, New York City seems like a fresco painting, with all the grayness and the sharp angles blurred together. That togetherness, however, is merely an illusion for Bickle, a Vietnam veteran who takes the night shift as a taxi driver because he can’t sleep nights. “Might as well get paid,” he reasons, and attempts to joke with the personnel officer, who shoots him down. Bickle tries again with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a blonde beauty working on a senator’s (Leonard Harris) presidential campaign. She seems interested until he takes her to a pornographic movie on their second date and the relationship comes to a screeching halt. Betsy brushes off every one of his inept but sweetly sincere apologies, and something deep in Bickle’s psyche snaps. 

Cleaning up his route — which takes him to the grimiest corners of the city, the ones he wishes he could “flush down the fuckin’ toilet” — becomes his new focus, and he hones in on Iris (Jody Foster), an prepubescent prostitute living under the thumb of Sport (Harvey Keitel), her slimy pimp. Bickle wants to liberate Iris from this life of drugs and smut; she doesn’t want to be rescued (“it saves me from myself,” she calmly explains), and her resistance sends him on a single-minded quest that ends in one of the bloodiest showdowns ever set to celluloid. Filmed in hazy slow motion with an almost tender attention to detail, the sequence is shocking in its brutality. Not once does Scorcese move the camera from the action; in doing this, he smashes down the barrier between audience and screen, forcing us into the gore, blood and gristle. It’s a remarkably effective method that also makes “Taxi Driver” seem like the director’s most personal film (indeed, he has said the movie was one he “had to make”).

The same seems true of DeNiro, who throws himself into Travis Bickle to such an alarming degree we fear for the actor’s safety. “Taxi Driver” is DeNiro’s film, and he owns every inch of it with his startlingly powerful performance. He’s convincing in Bickle’s quieter moments, when he visibly feels the sting of Betsy’s rejection and the degradation of the people he drives, and the later on, when his loneliness shapes into dangerous psychosis. But nowhere is he better than in the movie’s closing moments, where satisfaction and happiness seem within reach. With his eyes, DeNiro deals the final blow, and we know Bickle has made a trip he can’t come back from.

Grade: A

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11 Responses

  1. Hi! Just to let you know, I awarded you the Krativ Blogger awards on my blog 🙂

  2. apt review, its such an unsettling film. not one of my all-time favourites funny enough, but great at what it does

    • I believe it was you — or was it McD? — who recently posted about the “suicide scene” in “Taxi Driver” being extremely disturbing?

  3. A great review for a great movie. Can’t remember where I even saw this one now but I’ll have to give it a watch again.

    • I lost some sleep over that showdown-at-the-OK-Corral finale (one of the most violent sequences I’ve seen in recent years). I forgot how creepy Robert DeNiro could be!

  4. Probably in my personal top 10, even if I could find at least five films from the ’70s I would say are “better” (whatever that means in the vague netherworld between objective appraisal and personal reaction). Travis is a reflection of his antecedent Ethan Edwards from John Ford’s The Searchers (both Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader have said that it’s a remake). Like Ethan (as well as the protagonist of Wim Wenders’ excellent and soon to be Criterion-ized Paris, Texas), Travis cannot function within normal society. Edwards can’t because he’s the embodiment of the Old West and its lawlessness, the Travis of Paris because he’s a colossal fuckup, and Bickle because society has become so corrupted that he can no longer abide it.

    The only thing I don’t really like about Taxi Driver is Bickle’s racism, which is antithetical to his justifiable alienation from the tailspinning post-Vietnam America and in there only because Ethan Edwards was such a complete racist. Everything else is just exquisite. And you’re quite right: that final shot is brilliant and it encapsulates his madness. When faced with the chance to reconnect with the woman that he built up as the representative of what shred of good remained in the world, he turns his back on her and drives on. At the end of the film you’re left with the knowledge that, one day, he’s going to kill again, and no one will be able to mistake it for heroism.

    • In his review, Ebert wrote at length about the way Scorcese uses the camera, focusing in particular on the scene involving Travis’ apology call to Betsy (the camera pans away from Travis) and the bloody climax, where everything is filmed in excruciating detail. I think the camera work might be what impressed me most about “Taxi Driver” because it really showed me that the director can play with our perceptions that way. Usually the actors draw me in; here it was DeNiro and Scorcese.

      Another interesting aspect: the ending. I read a discussion somewhere where someone posited that the ending is Travis’ hallucination, that there’s no way “Taxi Driver” could end as “happily” as it does. That’s a clever interpretation, but since Scorcese himself said the ending was real I tend to see it as not the least bit hopeful. Sure, Travis gets what he wants — temporary fame, recognition, the chance to reject Betsy — but that satisfaction won’t have sticking power. Besides, psychosis doesn’t simply vanish into thin air. It might stay dormant for awhile, but eventually all that rage will bubble up again. The brilliant thing about the ending, to me, is that Scorcese leaves us with this chilling thought.

  5. I remember watching this film when I was younger and not thinking much to it (I think I thought I had hired ‘Taxi’ – a completely different film!!), but that is a great review and I am going to watch it again – I am sure I will appreciate it a lot more now.

  6. […] That character is Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), an amiable guy who works in a Michigan comic book store, loves kung fu movies and waxes philosophic about Elvis. (“True Romance” begins with a conversation, this time about “Jailhouse Rock” showcasing the true essence of rockabilly, and Val Kilmer steps in as Clarence’s Guardian Elvis.) Clarence, like so many men in Tarantino’s movies, is a regular guy catapulted into extraordinary circumstances. What’s intriguing is that in every film the protagonists react differently to these gamechangers. In “True Romance,” it’s a chatty blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who upends Clarence’s life. They meet at a Sonny Chiba filmfest, there’s a shared moment over pie and soon they’re back at his place professing love. The trouble is that Alabama’s a prostitute – only four days in – with a pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) as delusional as he is sadistic. Oldman, barely recognizable in dreads, has a blast but doesn’t skimp on the sadism; Drexl is one scary hustler, even creepier than Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver.” […]

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