Taxi Driver: good study of an alienated and traumatised individual groping for purpose in a lost society

Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver” (1976)

As a character study of a lonely and alienated man whose mind collapses under the strain of the life he leads and the corruption he sees combined with a history of trauma and violence, this film has few peers. What makes it a great film is its portrayal of a society that has lost its way and of  characters other than Robert de Niro’s lead character Trvis Bickle who like him are searching for direction and purpose. The movie boasts excellent cinematography which captures the dreary and desperate life that Bickle leads as a taxi driver on night shift in the New York City of the mid-1970’s and which features a stunning mise-en-scène shot near the film’s end: this is a survey of a crime scene with two police officers standing frozen as if in shock, their hands still gripping their guns tightly. The sometimes florid music score by Bernard Herrmann (who scored several films for Alfred Hitchcock including “Vertigo” and “Psycho”) may sound a dated for the period but its languorous, repetitive swank and tight drumbeat percussion passages mirror Bickle’s obsessive, repeating fantasies and suit the film’s moods and tensions as they arise. The use of voice-over narration fits in with Bickle’s documentation of his activities in a notebook. The parallel plots of Senator Charles Palantine’s rise to nomination for the US Presidency and Bickle’s crusade to save a child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from a life of exploitation under her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) merge into each other smoothly.

Bickle is a disaffected Vietnam War veteran who takes up a job driving taxis at night to overcome his insomnia whose cause is never explained but can be guessed as a symptom of an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder which could explain his honourable discharge from the US army. He is attracted to a political aide Betsi (Cybill Shepherd) who is working for the nomination and election of Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) but after a couple of  dates, he takes her to see a mild porno film that offends her and she walks out of the cinema. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact Betsi, Bickle gives up and concludes she is no better than all the other people he sees in the streets. He comes across Iris looking for clients and decides she needs saving so he prepares himself for the deed by changing his life: he starts exercising and building up muscle, eating healthily, practising shooting and buying guns from a seedy dealer. He finally meets the girl through Sport and tries to convince her to leave her pimp but she hesitates. Finally Bickle takes it upon himself to rid Iris of Sport, his associates and some of her clients.

De Niro was born to play Bickle – he embodies the character’s contradictions: inarticulate and well-spoken; idealistic yet creepy and out of touch with the complex world he lives in and can’t understand; striving to be of worth and to have a good, moral purpose in life but frequenting seedy cinemas to watch porn films and implicitly approving when a passenger (Martin Scorsese in a cameo appearance) says he will murder his adulterous wife. Bickle has a narrow view of the world in which good and evil exist and there are no shades of grey between the two.  His ruminations and conversations with fellow cabbies, plus a scene where he is watching TV and another where he eyeballs a black man flaunting his wealth, suggest he is racist though one of the cabbies he hangs out with happens to be black. Bickle starts to see his purpose in life as cleaning his adopted home-town of the scum he sees on his nightly patrols. De Niro’s acting strikes a good balance between playing Bickle straight and over-acting: at one point in the film, in an inspired piece of scripting or directing (or both), he looks at the camera while rehearsing his fantasies and what he will say in them when he plays them for real, and any misgivings viewers might have about what he’s going to do are made to melt away.

The support cast is good without being remarkable but then it’s de Niro’s film all the way. Scorsese’s cameo as the jealous passenger brimming with rage at his wife’s infidelity and Keitel as the manipulative pimp make more impression on this viewer than Foster does. Foster seems a little too self-assured to play a runaway girl hesitant about leaving her pimp even though she wants to. Shepherd appears bland as Betsi but that’s the point: her wholesome blandness is mistaken by Bickle as angelic when he first sees her. Support characters including a co-worker of Betsi’s who’s keen on her but isn’t all that essential to the plot flesh out the world of “Taxi Driver”, giving the film a richer social tapestry than the plot requires.

The film probably could have been improved if Bickle had seen something in Palantine or in what the senator does that suggests he may be corrupt to justify Bickle’s assassination attempt. The film deliberately excludes any reference to Palantine’s political platform apart from the slogan “WE are the people …” which may be a weakness because there is nothing to pin him down on and demonstrate his  potential for venality. The happy ending plays as a parody of other happy endings in Hollywood dramas but some viewers will miss Bickle’s furtive look into his rearview mirror. This glance tells us that Bickle is still obsessed with his personal crusade of cleaning the “scum” out of the city and will strike hard again. Innocent people may die next time. The music could have been more ominous and repetitive than it is as the end credits start to scroll.

Would that Hollywood might once again make films about lonely people wanting to connect with society and the world but unable to do so because of their flawed, traumatised or disturbed pasts. Such folk end up being driven by forces they can’t understand and explain to themselves or to others, and by a society just as traumatised and lacking in hope and purpose as they, to commit deeds that by sheer chance turn them either into heroes or villains.

 

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