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Much like Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver feels prescient -- eerily prophetic for a film that turned 40 years old in 2016. Its main character, Travis Bickle is certainly of his era -- a Vietnam vet who wears the baggy green jacket he served in and can afford to live in Manhattan on a cabbie’s salary. And yet he is of every era. He is of this era especially, a troubled man who is inclined to see the worst in the world and then picks the very worst profession to match his disposition. Here is a man who will rave about the scum in the streets of New York at the slightest provocation driving a taxi in the dead of night in any and all of the five boroughs. Does Travis Bickle only see awful things all night long, or is that all we see because that’s all he’s capable of seeing?
My personal inclination is the latter. So much of this film is viewed through the rain-splattered windshield of Bickle’s yellow taxi cab, heard through the honks of car horns and the brass-heavy score, voiced over by his diary entries, that it seems clear director Martin Scorsese never intends for you to leave his mind. The film sets out to trap you there, to send you spiraling down with him helplessly, and it achieves its goal flawlessly.
None of this would be possible without the performance of Robert De Niro as Bickle. He is on screen for almost every moment of the film, and it wouldn’t work without him -- not without a performance like his, but without him specifically. If you want to understand the greatness of De Niro -- the reason the rest of us are so bummed out by the prospect of him making Dirty Grandpas until he dies -- start here -- not with The Godfather Part II or Goodfellas or The Deer Hunter or even Raging Bull. Nope. Right here.
For this to be a great film, De Niro has to make Bickle both charming and repugnant -- the type of guy you’d try to be friendly with because he seems like such a well-meaning lost soul, but who you’d be mortified to learn was dating your daughter.
This is best captured in Bickle’s fraught interactions with Betsy, the campaign worker for presidential candidate Charles Palantine played by Cybill Shepherd. He first comes to her attention when one of Betsy coworker’s Tom, played by Albert Brooks, notes that this strange cabbie has been leering at her from the street outside their office. As if it was some sort of cue, Bickle strides in and just starts talking to Betsy. He is direct. He smiles. He seems to have purpose. Betsy can’t help but be charmed. She wants to know more. Brooks projects complete befuddlement. Sure, he seems to be a competing suitor for Betsy. But he also seems to sense that something is terribly off about this man. We, the audience, are of these two minds. Bickle proves both of those minds right, first on a coffee-and-pie first date with Betsy and second on a Swedish-sex-education-flick second date.
Bickle is a man split in two. It’s tempting to see his arc as some sort of downward spiral. (That’s not to be confused with the downward spiral of the viewer of this film, which is a perfect metaphor for the journey the audience goes on.)
He is physically transformed, mohawk and everything, after all, and he ends his arc as something of a bullet-riddled exclamation point. But it is much more the case that he spends the film exploring each side of the split rather than embarking on some sort of linear progression. It is those two sides that, right from the start, make his blaze of glory seem inevitable in retrospect.
“I just want to work long hours,” he says as he pleads for his job. This, it would seem, is a noble, if not terribly ambitious, sentiment. It is to be admired. So, too, are the things he expresses to Betsy and, later, to Iris, the teenage prostitute played by Jodie Foster. He wants to protect both of them. He wants to treat Betsy as she deserves and to rescue Iris from her reprehensible pimp, Sport, played by Harvey Keitel.
Always lurking alongside this, though, is naked egotism and bottomless pits of darkness. From the very start, Bickle speaks of New York City -- his city -- with despair and wretched pessimism. “This city is like an open sewer. It’s full of filth and scum,” he tells Palantine, when, by chance, he picks up Betsy’s boss as a fare. These rants of Bickle’s are frequent and, yet, always sudden, blowing in and out like a squall. (None, of course, is more famous than the “You talkin’ to me” monologue, delivered by Bickle to Bickle in a full-length mirror in his apartment.)
“I think that the President should just clean up this mess,” he also tells Palantine. “He should flush it right down the fucking toilet.”
Before long, though, Bickle gives up entirely on the notion of anyone else cleaning things up. There is deep, unshakeable narcissism in this man. As he purchases high-caliber weapons and as his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, it also becomes clear that he sees himself as the only one who can do the job. Indeed, he may be the only man in his mind capable of even seeing all the messes. When he shows up at a Palantine rally fully intending to assassinate the man he once expressed support for, this side is laid bare.
“A man takes a job, you know, and that job, I mean, like that, and that it becomes what he is,” Wizard tells Bickle during a late-night conversation.
Wizard, a veteran cabbie played by the great Peter Boyle, is trying to soothe his would-be protege’s nerves. But he’s just as much speaking of the other job Travis Bickle is taking on -- that of judge and noble protector, or, to put it more succinctly, vigilante. It is the philosophy behind Bickle’s vigilantism -- the stuff he voices either in his diary or to whichever fares will listen -- that feels so relevant. His fixation on purity and his belief that only he can deliver it to those he deems worthy sounds like the ideology of just about every mass shooter you can summon from memory. No matter their specific motivation or their specific angle, they all seem to sound like a variation of Travis Bickle.
It’s a bit of distraction, then, that Scorsese makes this such a New York City film (even considering how New York-centric he has been over the course of his career). Think of New York in the 1970s, and, well, at least for someone who wasn’t alive then, the visuals of Taxi Driver bubble up near the top. You can practically smell the wet garbage as De Niro pilots his cab from Harlem to Staten Island and back. These are superficial sensations. They surround Travis Bickle, but they wind up having little to do directly with what’s going on in his head.
This is a darkly spiritual character study. It is as frosty and chilling as streets of Manhattan are scalding.