Robert De Niro embodies dangerous loners everywhere in Taxi Driver
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro (Travis Bickle), Jodie Foster (Iris), Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), Albert Brooks (Tom), Harvey Keitel (Sport/Matthew), Leonard Harris (Charles Palantine), Peter Boyle (Wizard), Harry Northup (Doughboy), Steven Prince (Easy Andy), Martin Scorsese (Passenger)
A grungy taxi ploughs through the neon-lit back alleys of New York, the glow of stop signs and tail lights washing the car in a hellish red glare. Inside that taxi, the interior monologue of its driver tips ever closer towards paranoia and fantasy. It’s no surprise that something is going to give. Martin Scorsese’s influential Taxi Driver is the definitive exploration of fractured psyches, the key text in film for exploring how isolation, loneliness and an inability to connect with people can tip someone into being a danger to others.
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is our taxi driver, an honourably discharged Vietnam vet who can’t sleep so works the night shifts. He’s seemingly quiet, shy, self-contained but this hides a desperation to connect with the world, a horror at what he sees around him that he can’t understand, a paranoid disgust at the crime and dirt he feels infect the street and a desire to be someone or do something. His failure to understand to or relate to the world on any level will eventually lead to a gradual collapse as Bickle determines that he must lash out at something, must attack something, to make himself a place in the world.
Taxi Driver is such a brilliant analysis of disaffection and confusion at the world, such an insightful understanding of how feeling separate and locked out from events around them can make a person feel they must act to make their mark, that it profoundly influenced the motivations of Ronald Reagan’s would-be-assassin John Hinckley Jnr in 1981. The film was even screened for the jury as part of Hinckley’s (successful) defence that he acted due to insanity (Hinckley claimed he was trying to impress Jodie Foster). Tragic as that is, it speaks something to the power of the film and its acute understanding (but not excuse) for lonely, fractured, potentially violent souls like Hinckley.
Scorsese’s direction is pitch-perfect. The film uses a series of tightly held shots – and some go on for a very long time, staring at trivial events (such as the shot of an empty corridor while we hear Bickle being rejected on the phone by his stalking target Betsy) – or stately intercutting between actors that brilliantly serve to establish both Bickle’s isolation and his lack of connection. This is intermixed with tighter editing that captures Bickle’s undirected fury and paranoia towards the real world, presented as he drives as a concussive collection of sounds and images that seem to hammer down on the taxi, combined with Bernard Herrmann’s superb classically tense score, lyrical but haunting.
Every scene Scorsese constructs is designed to show Bickle’s isolation, his weakness and continual succumbing to fantasy and false perspectives. His internal monologue has a monotone fluency to it, but talking to people he’s tongue tied, clumsy or prone to tip into the rantings of a crazy man. Slow motion camera tracks show Bickle moving through crowds like an alien, unable to comprehend or understand what he is seeing, later prowling the frame like a misguided hunter. New York is a hellish underworld – although you are certain we are seeing it largely as Bickle sees it, every scene filtered through his disturbed POV (Michael Chapman’s photography by the way is faultless).
It works so well because De Niro himself is so restrained, and at first feels rather sweet, even handsome, like someone who you want to look after or feel sorry for – a million miles from the mohawked gun totter he will become by the film’s end. He’s quiet, shy and desperate for friends. He can manage bursts of seeming like a compelling person – his fooling of Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy into a date is a tribute to his ability in short bursts to appear charmingly eccentric. The date of course flounders on his inability to understand human norms (buys her a record she says she has, takes her to a porn film, points out he has a taxi when she tries to get into one to leave), and his response to it is of course to get angry and make a scene, to blame the other person for his own failings.
De Niro immersed himself in the dark psyche of this man, and never loses touch of the gentleness and vulnerability that underpin his violent actions. Bickle talks the talk often of a crazy person, but by his own lights he’s a well-meaning man. It’s just that his well-meaning actions involve multiple murders, and it’s only by a twist of fate that he guns down a house full of pimps and gangsters rather than putting a bullet through a Presidential candidate.
And that’s the scary thing about the film: Bickle is strangely sympathetic, for all his obvious psychosis. Who hasn’t felt alone and lost in the world? Who hasn’t felt scared by events around them or dangers unknown? Who hasn’t wondered “why don’t people like me”? We just deal with it a lot better than Bickle and his messianic sense of mission that he develops.
Bickle channels what human emotions he can muster or understand into ciphers he barely knows. These people become totems, or stalking targets, who he becomes persuaded must be “saved”. With Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy, the delusion is clear: here is a confident, career woman, independent and smart, for whom Bickle can feel an attraction but clearly no understanding at all beyond her being an object he cannot have. The awkwardness and later stunningly poor judgement and reactions he shows when around her mark him immediately as a weirdo and danger to others.
But the film’s smarts – and it has a terrific script by Paul Schrader, whose understanding of dark psyches was never better captured than here – is that these fixations have a totally different impact when targeted on a child prostitute. Suddenly, Bickle’s unwanted attentions have the air of righteousness, even though intellectually he makes no distinction between either Betsy or Jodie Foster’s Iris (a performance of staggering emotional maturity from an actress barely 12 at the time). For all Iris is clearly a victim of society and abuse (in a way Betsy isn’t), for Bickle she’s pretty much the same, someone he must ‘rescue’ – and from her pimp Sport (a disturbingly fey and incestuous turn from Harvey Keitel).
So Bickle takes up the guns, and eventually does what we all wish we could do sometimes. Because who hasn’t stood in front of the mirror and dreamed about saying “you talkin’ to me” to our enemies – the difference being most of us don’t fantasise about blowing them away, let alone actually go on to do it. De Niro’s brilliance is the chilling emptiness behind the exterior, the way he captures universal fears and doubts but shows us a character who has no personality of his own but only collects titbits from those around him (like his would-be murderous passenger – played by Scorsese himself – who eagerly talks about how he wishes he could murder his cheating wife).
So the violence comes – and it is horrific – as Bickle shoots up a lowlife prostitute den with sickening graphicness (nothing this violent had really been seen before). But it’s only fate that has turned him away from his real target, Senator Palatine (George Lucas must have had this film in the back of his mind when naming his Evil Emperor!), reverting to his secondary target and killing a group of people far more acceptable to Joe Public to be wasted.
Scorsese’s genius final epilogue asks us questions about truth but also perceptions. The camera takes on a “God’s view” POV overhead shot as Bickle’s slaughter ends (and De Niro’s jerky, terminator like physicality here is stupendous), tracking back through the house. Is this his soul leaving a dying body? But then we flash forward and there is Bickle in the taxi again, hailed as a hero by society for rescuing the girl – the same society that would have condemned him as psychopath if he had taken his first target. He even gets a sympathetic conversation with Betsy.
But he hasn’t changed. And the world hasn’t changed. And Bickle may be a hero now but the same dark impulses still ride within him – and they will, the film suggests, lead him to kill again. Scorsese’s film is a masterpiece of alienation and disaffection, a brilliant analysis of what makes a killer kill – and how vagaries of fate can see us miss the signs – with a wonderful script and a superb performance from De Niro, a landmark turn that manages to tap into such existential fears we all have on our place in the world that we completely miss we are starting to relate to a psychopath. Dark and brilliant, a landmark.