Taxi Driver


If you’re talking about characters having their sanity stripped from them like some much peeling paint, then you have to start with Taxi Driver.
Martin Scorsese’s epic tale of a rapidly fracturing mind trapped within a decaying sleazoid hell is second to none when it comes to making disturbing subject matter into high art and if you ever needed a quick burst of ammo for a pub discussion why this film is Marty’s masterwork, it’s this: only a true genius could take all the different threads that spoil within Taxi Driver’s twisted husk and not turn out something ridiculously exploitative.
Forget the searing iconic imagery for a moment (if that’s even possible) and just consider how close the movie actually skews to established exploitation movie norms and somehow still comfortably emerges as one of the greatest, damn, movies ever made.


Travis Bickle, a man self-described in his own, rambling diaries as “God’s lonely man”, is an honourably discharged marine who served in Vietnam and who obviously is suffering from some form of undiagnosed PTSD. In an effort to take advantage of his epic insomnia, he takes a job as a taxi driver, ferrying various lost soul across the length and breadth of New York City, but, unsurprisingly, his inhuman workload of twelve hour night shifts spread over working weeks that sometimes stretch to seven days does nothing to alter his state of mind. However, most damaging to his tenuous grasp of reality is the fact that during the mid 1970’s, New York was an infamous, open-aired cess pool of prostitution, pumps, porn, crime, filth and degradation that has Bickle wishing that a real rain would come and wash the scum off the streets.
Inbetween accepting fares from jittery men who want to murder their cheating wives and impassively staring at the screen of a porn theatre after buying a popcorn (popcorn and porn? Jesus wept that’s unnerving), Travis finds a sliver of respite in the form of Betsy, a volunteer campaigner for a hopeful presidential candidate, whom he tries to date despite having no real clue how normal people interact. Also on his mind is Iris, a twelve year-old prostitute, whose treatment by her pimp, Matthew, sends Travis into rage spiral that sees his already dark thoughts manifest themselves in threatening ways and after a date with Betsy goes disastrously wrong, he illegally purchases a bunch of firearms and prepares for war.
Initially planning to assassinate the Senator Betsy is campaigning for, an utterly delusional Travis turns his attention back to Iris and sets in motion a brutal plan to enforce his will upon a world crumbling from urban decay that won’t give him a second thought.


If you were confused about my earlier statement about the distance between Taxi Driver being an exploitation being gossamer thin, allow me clarify. Anyone familiar with such sub-genres as the vigilante movie and the Nam-ploitation flick may notice more than a few similarities – but what differs between Scorsese’s genuinely upsetting soliloquy and trashier fare like Death Wish, Combat Shock and The Exterminator, is the trademark sense of detail and style the director brings to the table. This is a cinematic New York that you can breathe into your lungs (although you might not want to), where vice and corruption pulse within every doorway like some sort of social fucking cancer. The trick is the script by Paul Schrader and the direction by Scorsese make the inspired choice to let morals take a back seat and see everything from our anti-hero’s skewed point of view, planning for our own decency to make us horribly uncomfortable at this journey throughout an urban hellscape. Travis is an uncomfortably magnetic presence both pitiful and terrifying, with this never being more evident in the legendary “Are you talking to me?” scene as his delusions manifest into something approaching some kind of control that is perversely cool enough to be imitated for decades to come.
It would be somewhat redundant to state that Robert De Niro gives arguably the greatest performance of his career, because at no point at all do you ever feel like he’s doing anything as prosaic as acting because for all intents and purposes, he convincingly is a man with a grasp on his sanity so tenuous he’s been divorced from reality more times than Elizabeth Taylor’s divorced husbands. I’m not exactly sure how De Niro made his eyes as upsettingly empty as they are for the entire film, but he utterly convinces as a man who has gradually lost his mind and has no idea how strange he truly is.


In comparison, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brook’s characters serve almost as red herrings, seemingly there to be a barometer of normality in comparison to a man who truly sees nothing wrong with taking a woman to a porn theatre for a first date – at least he didn’t get popcorn this time. Other familiar faces that pop up include Peter Boyle as know it all, taxi driving, guru, the Wizard, who’s misguided words of wisdom mostly stem from pure bullshit and even Harvey Keitel shows up looking like a terrifying version of Tommy Wiseau as Matthew the pimp and all involved give superlative, naturalistic, performances. However, as good as they all are, only one member of the cast manages to be in the same league as De Niro’s unkikely icon of counter culture and that’s the mind blowing performance of an actual twelve year-old Jodie Foster as Iris who doesn’t so much as act as allow herself to be possessed by an actual, shockingy underage streetwalker in a way that’s as affecting as it is genuinely horrifying.
Speaking of horrifying, the violence that ends the film is as nihilistically ironic as any that’s ever been filmed and even though Travis’ legitimately shocking rescue attempt to save Iris results in something of a “happy” ending, it’s actually Bickle’s plan B, with his foiled earlier plot being the assassination of a United States senator. Still, as second attempts go, literally pulping a gaggle of low life pumps with guns of multiple calibre is certainly memorable in the most chilling way as Scorsese wisely refuses to make the blood shed even remotely cathartic, opting intead to keep it as squalid and repulsive as everything else.


As unforgettable an experience that’s ever been run through a film projector, Taxi Driver transcends virtually every aspect of its impossibly harrowing exterior to find poignancy within the extreme ugliness. If this movie has somehow evaded you – and I can’t imagine how it could unless you live in a cave, six miles underground – make sure you flag it down. NOW.
Yes, I am talkin’ to you.


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