Saturday, August 7, 2010

Day Thirty-Six: Taxi Driver

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #40
Year: 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster

After a short introductory phase to his career consisting of movies ranging from total flops to minor successes, Martin Scorsese became the Martin Scorsese that we know and love today with 1976's Taxi Driver, a film that explores the psyche of a cab-driving Vietnam veteran with undiagnosed insomnia who gets wrapped up in the lives of the people he encounters on his route. I'll be the first to admit that it's a complete and utter travesty that it took me until now to see this movie. I can hardly think of any movies that are more universally praised and critically acclaimed, and I generally like Scorsese's work, so it's unforgivable that I never saw it. After going back to see it, it's obvious what an impact Taxi Driver would have stylistically on Scorsese throughout the rest of his career. Robert De Niro delivers a top-notch performance as Travis Bickle, and Jodie Foster paves the way for Natalie Portman in The Professional and Chloƫ Moretz in Kick-Ass with her role as a preteen girl with her innocence shattered by her lifestyle, even though Portman and Moretz didn't play child prostitutes like Foster does here. Pound for pound, this is one of Scorsese's finest moments as a director, even if my weird obsession with Gangs of New York prevents me from calling it his masterpiece.

The beauty of Taxi Driver is that, up until its climax, very little happens. Sure, Bickle shoots that robber in the convenience store, but he spends the rest of the first three-fourths of the movie driving around, talking to people, watching porn, working out, and buying guns. He saves most of his energy for his grand finale, which more than justifies the buildup. SPOILER ALERT: He kills three gang members to protect Iris, Foster's preteen prostitute. What's beautiful and tragic about it is that it doesn't really feel like he did it in an attempt to clean up the city or make an example or even because he cared deeply about Iris and didn't want her to get hurt. It essentially feels like he was bored with all of the wakeful hours his insomnia brought him, so he decided to do something violent. He originally wanted to assassinate a presidential candidate, and hell, he didn't even want to live through the ordeal; he left a note for Iris saying he'd be dead before she'd see him again, and in an iconic shot, he sits on the couch after the shootout with all of his guns empty, pointing his index finger at his temple and repeatedly pulling the trigger with a depraved smile on his face. Instead, he gets to be a hero, and the papers write about the great thing he did as if he wanted the publicity.

The denouement is something that has been debated endlessly, and I won't add my contributions simply because I don't know what to think. Bickle drops off the woman he had been courting at the beginning of the film at her house, pays her fare for her, then drives off. He hears a distorted sound, looks into his rear view mirror, and the scene cuts. Scorsese has said that this is meant to represent the fact that Bickle is not a hero, and that he could snap again at any moment. That's satisfyingly unambiguous, even if it is a bit of a cop-out on Marty's part. The movie wouldn't be as great as it is without its ending, and De Niro sells it hard with those steely eyes of his.

The Good: Even if it wasn't technically the thing that set Scorsese up for one of the greatest directorial careers of all time, it effectively was. He comes into his own and pulls out a lot of the tricks we'd see in future works here.

The Bad: It might be slightly overrated, just because I've seen it on so many people's lists as their #1 movie of all time. I can't quite dig that, but it is extremely good.

The Skinny: Deserves its place.


  1. This is one of my all-time favorite movies.
    It breaks my heart every time.

  2. Not one of my own favorites, but a VERY influential and enjoyable movie with original story and great acting from De Niro. At first I didn't understand what all the hype is about, but now I appreciate it more.
    Travis Bickle is such an interesting character. I love the part when he takes her girl to the movies and is so confused (How can you even act such confusion is beyond me).
    As Siskel & Ebert says : Thumbs Up!
    Taxi Driver 8+/10

  3. "Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me? I'm the one here, so you must be talking to me.

    Love this film and definitely one of De-Niro's finest performances. Seems like a pre-cursor to his performance as Max Cady in "Cape Fear".