(United States, 1976)
"You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?" That quote is perhaps not as frequently mimicked as "Here's lookin' at you, kid" or "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse," but it's close. And, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then, for more than 25 years, Robert De Niro has been the object of outrageous flattery. Taxi Driver represents one of Martin Scorsese's three great movies. (That's as of this writing – with a director of such high caliber, who's to say there won't be another?) The other two - Raging Bull and Goodfellas - came later in his career. This was the picture that elevated Scorsese from the level of "promising director worth watching" to someone who had arrived. Taxi Driver proved to be influential, important, and engrossing. The film's portrayal of lead character Travis Bickle is by turns darkly humorous, tragically sad, and deeply disturbing. Most important, however, it is real. This is no cookie-cutter, run-of-the-mill psycho. Bickle is three-dimensional with a legitimate arc. Every time I re-watch Taxi Driver, I find myself marveling anew at the power of what Scorsese has accomplished.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Robert De Niro is Travis Bickle, a 26-year old ex-Marine searching for work that will keep him up all night as a means of combating insomnia. At the outset, Travis is a lonely, disillusioned man who can still function within the "normal" constraints of society. As time passes, however, Travis becomes increasingly alienated from the world around him, spiraling into a state of dissociated delusion. He sees New York City as a place of urban decay populated by "animals" and "scum" that need to be swept away. And who better than him to initiate the process? Initially, Travis is attracted to the cool-but-beautiful Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a volunteer for Senator Palantine's Presidential campaign. Although Travis' stares initially make Betsy uneasy, his persistence pays off when she agrees to accompany him to the movies. Unfortunately, the socially-inept Travis chooses a hard-core porn film for their first date. Following that gaffe, Betsy dumps him, accelerating Travis' descent into isolation. The next woman to enter Travis' life is a twelve-year old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). Travis decides to save her, although his motivation results less from a concern for her well-being than from a need to be seen as a savior. Iris really isn't a person to him; she's a symbol. But redeeming one girl is only an aspect of his plan -- he also intends to assassinate Senator Palantine. Travis is tired of sitting back and taking what life dishes out. He wants to act, even if the action has no basis in logic, because, by this time, he is beyond rational considerations.
There's no doubt that Taxi Driver paints an extremely disturbing portrait -- we find ourselves understanding the lead character's warped mindset. This is expert film making from director Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Michael Chapman, and the actors. Paul Schrader's script, which was inspired by such diverse works as Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground and Harry Chapin's song, "Taxi," is a masterful psychological study. Years after its initial theatrical run, Taxi Driver's message rings as true as ever, and the characters are as shockingly believable as in the mid-seventies.
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