At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Taxi Driver

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Neo-Noir Psychological Thriller/ Stars: Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Harry Northup, Norman Matlock, Steven Prince, Martin Scorsese/ Runtime: 114 minutes

I feel it is safe to start this review off by saying that because a lot has already been written and mulled over by plenty of other film historians and/or critics about the movie ‘Taxi Driver’ that it almost actually seemed redundant to a large extent in my mind to even attempt to try and add anything more to the already-quite lengthy discussion. Yet after watching this iconic piece of cinema again the other night for literally what was the umpteenth time I, as I have been every single time I’ve seen it in my life, once again found myself actually struck by just how perfect this piece of cinema really truly is. Indeed this film is not only just as absolutely powerful and disturbing now as it was twenty-five years ago, but even more remarkably, this movie has NOT aged one bit. Instead this is a true modern classic that gets better and more relevant as the years go by and is one that is absolutely timeless as well.

The plot is as follows: Taxi Driver tells us the story of a young man named Travis Bickle. Bickle we find out is a Vietnam veteran who cannot sleep at night and having run out of alternatives just ends up travelling around NYC. Thus in an attempt to try and utilize his time in a more effective and productive manner, he decides to become a taxi driver. It isn’t long thereafter that things actually start to look up for Bickle as he not only is able to make a decent amount, but he’s also slowly starting to live a little bit and actually act human. A feat that I might add is entirely possible due to Bickle meeting a woman named Betsy, and is actually able to take her out on a date or 2 despite the fact that he is a little bit off. Yet it is during his time on the clock at night that Bickle stumbles upon a young prostitute named Iris who is being terrorized psychologically by her pimp and it isn’t long before Travis begins to think that part of his role in cleaning up the sewer and drainage ditch that he feels New York has become involves saving her from her terrifying circumstances. However when Travis’ views of life result in Betsy wanting nothing more to do with him, Travis finds himself beginning to grow more and more outraged by the world he is part of and slowly but surely begins to lose his grip; not only on his morality, but even more terrifying, his sanity as well…

Now based off that plot description, I can understand how this might really give off the vibe of being not exactly the most uplifting film in the world. Yet nevertheless, I feel that it must also be said that this film is also engaging and impressive and it absolutely does deserve the reputation it has. Indeed it goes without saying, but Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader have managed to create a film that is a riveting portrayal of a man estranged from society who finds first his slim connection to normality eroding away and then his sanity. Now this film’s script is also absolutely brilliant because while the attention to detail is absolutely riveting, it is also just how realistically Travis’ descent into a very modern type of madness is presented that also does a wonderful job of driving the film forward. Indeed because it’s not easy to see that Travis really has just enough about him that is recognizably human, I feel that this actually makes it fairly easy to go along with the rest of his madness like most of the other characters. Indeed I do feel that a significant part of achieving this is the fact that the filmmakers manage to nail down the aspect of living in what literally feels like a straight-up cesspool. In painting this world in such a real way, Scorsese has made Travis all the more convincing and, to a point, all the easier to follow in his fall. Also as previously stated this most certainly is not a film which will ever morally uplift you and your spirits. Yet with that being said I do feel that this is a film which is depressingly fair. I say that because within the world of this film there really is seldom to no hope for our main character ever being fully capable of redemption. Indeed I can understand how it may appear that the violence at the end somehow redeems Travis, I disagree; instead I would like to argue that the reality of the situation is that by showing “society” accepting his violent actions it actually has the effect of dragging us in the audience closer to the world that Bickle hates, but has ultimately become part of. Indeed I feel that a lot of this can be attributed to the filmmaking skill of Martin Scorsese who manages to inject both a real understanding of time and place as well as a real sense of foreboding into even the earliest scenes of this movie. Not only that, but Scorsese then manages to insert some surprisingly clever and meaningful shots into quite a few scenes that I can honestly say the majority of other directors might just have filmed straight and left as is. Indeed I feel that the choice of scene and shot by Scorsese really does a wonderful job of complimenting the script and in the process makes the depiction of Travis and his rapid descent into madness that much more riveting and eerily compelling.

Ultimately though the key ingredient that helps to make this already legendary film even more iconic than it already is would have to be without a doubt a tour de force performance from a young Robert De Niro. Indeed I know, with a few exceptions, that his career has been kind of sketchy in regards to quality as of late. In this movie though he proves to be an outstanding force of nature as he manages to do a phenomenal job of making this character his own and helps Travis evolve, or devolve rather, from being somewhat normalesque all the way to becoming more and more driven apart from not only a sense of morality , but towards his own humanity as well. Suffice it to say then that although Bickle’s eventual psychological implosion is impressively pulled off, I do feel that it is only that impressive because of the skill and craft that has been given toward showcasing the gradual slide brilliantly over the course of the film. Yet although it is a very dominant performance by Mr. DeNiro, I do feel that the majority of the rest of the cast also manages to impress as well despite their roles not being quite as big as DeNiro’s. Particular kudos then must go to Jodie Foster who displays both a youthful eagerness yet worldly maturity as the child prostitute Iris, Harvey Keitel who as her pimp brings a slimy charisma to his role, and Peter Boyle who, in his role of fellow cabbie Wizard, tries to be a voice of reason for the increasingly unstable Bickle. Now although Brooks and Shepherd are fine with their respective characters I do feel that to some degree their characters were not as well written as the others so it isn’t really their fault. Nevertheless though, this is a film that rests solely on the shoulders of De Niro. Yet although the quotable moments are the ones that are remembered in the grand scheme of things, I would also like to argue that more often than not, it is in the film’s quieter moments where this true legend manages not only to excel, but to also showcase a genuine talent and understanding not only of this character, but his motivations as well.

All in all Taxi Driver may be a depressing and quite dark film, but that never once manages to detract from not only just how impressive this film is, but also in just how much the finished product does deserve the place in cinematic history that it has managed to carve out for itself. Indeed this is a taut, engaging, and quite frightening in its own way showcase of a city at a specific time as well as a man who finds himself slipping into the dangerous void that is lack of morality as well as psychological insanity. Not only that, but this is also a film which does an excellent job of being a showcase for just how well a Hollywood production can capture what “modern” madness as well as the effect that not only that madness, but just a lack of morality can have on parts of society. Indeed this was an early calling card for both Scorsese who, despite being in the early era of his now iconic and legendary career, still manages to direct this like the master he is now seen as by 99.999% of the world and for film icon Robert De Niro who shows the world why he is now seen as the legend, despite such film choices as Dirty Grandpa, that he is. This is because as Travis Bickle DeNiro is just plain and simply chilling and effective as, despite phenomenal performances from the game supporting cast, he just simply dominates the film in both the quiet and the oft-talked about moments that this film offers. All of which leads me to say that although it takes a heck of a lot for me to throw out the phrase known as “modern classic” I would just like to point out that no matter how much time passes or how many times I watch this film, this will always be a cinematic experience that I feel will deserve that label now and forever more. On a scale of 1-5 I give Taxi Driver a solid 5 out of 5.