WFTB Score: 19/20
The plot: Travis Bickle can’t sleep, so he spends his nights taking fares from every kind of New Yorker, from politicians to prostitutes and all shades in between. But when his advances towards prissy campaigner Betsy are rejected, Travis’ instability forms itself into a plan that spells danger both for the Presidential candidate Betsy supports and the aggressive pimp of a vulnerable young prostitute called Iris.
Former marine Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) signs on as a New York taxi driver and quickly becomes a creature of the night, driving through the steamy streets of a New York awash with sex and drugs. Disgusted by the ‘filth’, he keeps a journal of how much he despises his passengers and the fluids they leave in his taxi; on the other hand, he spends his own days watching pornographic films and drinking. Travis sees a rare thing of beauty in the Big Apple when he spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), working to get Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) nominated as a Presidential candidate; and his persistence pays off when she agrees to go on a date with him. However, his disastrous choice of date movie sends her fleeing in horror and she wants nothing more to do with him, setting off a bomb in Travis’ unstable mind. Fuelled by anger, drugs and the purchase of an arsenal of weapons, Travis sets his sights on a measure of revenge and takes an uncomfortably close interest in the imminent arrival of Senator Palantine in New York to give a speech. His focus is temporarily diverted by Iris (Jodie Foster), a twelve-year-old prostitute held in thrall by her creepy pimp/lover Sport (Harvey Keitel). Although it’s offered, Travis doesn’t want sex with Iris, just to set her free from the filth he sees all around them. One thing is certain: one way or another, this is going to end messily for someone.
If you are only aware of De Niro from his work in Meet the Parents/Fockers or Analyse This/That, a) you need to get out more and b) you need to watch Taxi Driver immediately (if you’re old enough, naturally). While some films are dominated by action, special effects or the pull of the story, and others thrive by recreating period detail or showcasing a director’s unique vision, Taxi Driver is an actor‘s film. Actually, it’s one actor’s film: De Niro is so searingly, magnetically brilliant as Travis Bickle that you are helplessly attracted to every uneasy smirk or violent twitch he makes. His characterisation of Bickle, the pill-popping, drinking, brooding presence who ultimately goes completely off the rails, is an absolute master class in how to act on the big screen. The power of the performance comes not only in its violent moments; it’s also in the slow reveal of Bickle’s complicated personality, initially intense and socially awkward but by no means obviously dangerous or unusual, before Betsy’s rejection shifts his focus until he eventually becomes psychotic and literally unrecognisable.
While De Niro dominates Taxi Driver, the film’s success is far from down to him alone. Shepherd is effectively stand-offish and has a puppyish protector in Albert Brooks’ Tom; Keitel is horribly convincing and Foster utterly natural, leaving just a glimmer of childishness in her much-abused Iris. Scorsese, who gives himself a cameo as a cuckolded passenger, guides us to see through Travis’ eyes as much as possible and his direct, visceral approach is profoundly successful: rarely has grime and evil radiated from the screen so immediately or with such violence. New York is presented as a functioning Hell on Earth, the steam from the vents obscuring wanton, sinful creatures going about their murky business in the dark. The grisly bloodbath at the film’s conclusion is shot with a raw, horrifying frankness and filmed from a multitude of unusual angles. Credit must also be given to Paul Schrader, who paints the scenes through Bickle’s earthy observations and skillfully weaves Iris and Sport into the main plot about Travis’ mental breakdown. There’s clearly a connection between Betsy the innocent adult and Iris the knowing child, and the fact that Travis is unable to connect with either of them feeds into his view of the world as messed up (to be polite) beyond all redemption – except that offered by the gun, which can ‘wash all this scum off the streets‘. And of course there’s the bizarre and inspired turn of events at the film’s conclusion, where Travis is lionised as a vigilante hero (and even earns Betsy’s respect) when – had things gone to plan – he would have been reviled as a notorious assassin.
It’s not always a comfortable watch, but hardly a second of Taxi Driver feels out of place. Even the one criticism I have – that the saxophone refrain of Bernard Hermann’s score comes round a few times too often – is offset both by the thundering nature of its brooding sections and the fact that Hermann died in 1975, limiting the amount of new material he was able to write (though apparently the score was completed just before he died). A film with a magnetic performance and countless scenes that are as fascinating as they are disturbing, this is one of the best films from a decade that wasn’t short of a classic or two. You all know the ‘You talking to me?’ quote, but watch this again in its entirety and savour Scorsese‘s brilliant, nightmarish view of a city allowed to run wild, and (most of all) enjoy De Niro in all his terrifying glory.