My 100 favourite films. Entry #30: Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver (1976)
directed by Martin Scorsese
written by Paul Schrader
starring Robert de Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks and Harvey Keitel
country: usa
genre: drama

Visuals: 10
Writing: 10
Everyday watchability: 4

I recently read an article called 100 Essential Male Film Performances, and de Niro's role as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver was obviously on the list. In the article, James R Fleming states that de Niro's performance is "a complex high-wire balancing act in which De Niro doesn’t choose to play Bickle as an all-knowing, completely detached loner or as an evil psychopath." While I was reviewing the film in preparation for this entry, I found this statement to be unerringly true. I'm not sure that it's something I've ever realized before. In talking about the film, Bickle is often pointed out as a sociopath, but there's much more to him than that.

Take for instance the scene where he takes Cybill Shepherd's character Betsy to a pornographic film for a first date. She runs out of the theatre in disgust. He follows her, and outside, with prostitutes arguing and city lights blinking, they argue about the appropriateness of taking a lady to see pornography. It's extremely clear in this scene that Travis has no clue. He doesn't understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour. He offers to take her to other (less risqué) movies, stating, "I don't know much about them, but I'll take you." There's an extreme sadness in his apology, and he's not at all violent toward her. He seems like any guy confused by the intricacies of women, but what confuses and confounds him is something completely obvious to the average person. What makes it heartbreaking is that he's so close. He's clearly capable of caring for people, but he's also incapable of understanding them.

While de Niro's performance is an obvious tour de force, the power of the movie doesn't lie completely on his shoulders. Scorsese's direction is at its very best here. He pans the camera slowly over black diner patrons as they eye Travis. He mounts it to the taxi, covered with water droplets as it drives down the crowded street, horns singing a plaintive wail. In a scene where Travis calls Betsy on a payphone, the camera slowly pans away from him into an empty hallway. Scorsese explained that the conversation is almost too much to take, too heartbreaking, so you have to look away.

There's a scene where Travis finds senatorial hopeful Charles Pallantine in his cab. Bickle tells him, "I think someone should just take this city and just... just flush it down the fuckin' toilet." Pallantine looks at him with a barely-hidden grimace of abject horror. Personally, I can't help feeling that Bickle's right. New York (at least Taxi Driver's New York) is filled with hookers, pimps, lowlifes and scum. Bickle's idea of vigilantism is scarily intriguing. Maybe the city does need cleaning up. To prove my sanity, it is necessary here to say that Bickle's brand of justice is off, that maybe someone with a more even temperament should be in charge. After all, who watches the watchers?


1 comment(s).:

August 28, 2009 at 8:57 PM Sea of Love... ...forthelackofwords said...

i wish to sip a gin and ginger ale with you and tell you how i enjoyed reading your review and opinion of this film.

i enjoyed your presentation of the bit about Bickle's inability to understand other people.
gestures and actions give people's intentions and capacities away.

cheers, lee.