“It is impossible to suffer without making someone pay for it; every complaint already contains revenge.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Searing neon penetrates the blackness. Thick fog rises from the slicked pavement. Madmen, prostitutes, orphans scream and curse from the sidewalks. New York City during the ’70s was a certifiable hellhole, and Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is something a bit like Dante, something a bit like Charon, and something a bit like Lucifer.
Taxi Driver is the first of four (as of now) collaborations between virtuoso screenwriter Paul Schrader and America’s cinematic superman Martin Scorsese. Of the four (the others include: Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Bringing Out The Dead (1999)) this one is the greatest. It is the perfect examination of madness; never once does it romanticize or grow cynical. In the age where “crime movies” are either egregiously over-the-top or given the “cool ’90s” treatment – which basically turns criminals into de facto comedians – Taxi Driver’s steady, serious, psychodramatic tempo is actually very refreshing. This film is so tonally pure that it seems to have had a pivotal role in the birthing of a sub-genre: “neon-noir.” Recent examples of this include Drive (2011) and Nightcrawler (2014) and it is fitting that both of these films bear titles that would also work for Taxi Driver. Neon-noir’s now integral American archetype of the man who is lost within himself but right at home in the hot, urban night originates in the French minimalist movement (see Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) for direct inspiration,) but it was Taxi Driver that raised this type to the collective, popular consciousness.
Taxi Driver is very much a character study, and Travis Bickle is one of those timeless characters that stays with you long after the initial viewing. He sails the black roads of the city in a drifting four-wheeled fortress, bearing witness to the sidewalk-housed horrors of the city’s worst neighborhoods, sponging their madness and sin into his own psyche until he – like a samurai or perhaps like Christ – must obtain a violent death to release it all, redeeming himself in the process. It is implied that he haunts these parts of the Manhattan because no other cabby will work there, and – while we never learn much about his income – he probably does well for himself for this reason.
Not that this particularly matters, of course, as Travis doesn’t really do anything for most of the film besides drive. Like Jeff Costello from Le Samourai (1967) Travis lives threadbare by daylight, only coming into form at night. His apartment is bland, and he spends any time out either at a porno theater (where he never seems to really enjoy what he sees) or at a diner with his co-workers (whom he barely talks to.) He is sexless, boring, and reclusive. Scorsese claims that this film “takes machismo to its logical conclusion,” but the only “machismo” one could find in this film is either as flimsy imitation or buried under insanity. Travis is not a man’s man because Travis is not anything. He proclaims himself to be “God’s lonely man” in one of many extended diary-entries-cum-monologues. It’s the most accurate, most self-aware description of him that we get from the film. He is isolated, paranoid, and constantly imitating a bravado that’s somewhat easy to see through. In one passage he philosophizes that “one should not devote oneself to morbid self-attention…one should be a person like other people” and this too is transparent. (DeNiro handled this role so well that he knew to put the stress on the word “person.”) Irony from the film’s ending aside, Travis is nothing like other people, and his desperation to conform – and failure to do so – might be what ultimately sends him over the edge, although it’s perfectly reasonable that he may have been over the edge from day one. (Roger Ebert notes that the famous “you talkin’ to me?” scene is the film’s most honest: it shows Travis imitating social interaction, but only creating a violent display towards himself in the mirror.)
Travis’ character is repeatedly said to have been inspired by the Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) character from The Searchers (1956,) and the comparison is very fitting. Both men are veterans of war, both are loners, both view themselves as above the savagery that they intentionally surround themselves with. (Travis claims to not mind the filth of the under-class neighborhoods in the opening scenes, but ends up declaring war on them in one of the more famous monologues from the film’s third act.) Both have taken it on themselves to “save” women from conditions that the women in question do not wish to be removed from. In Edwards’ case, it’s his neice (Natalie Wood) who, at a young age, was kidnapped by a Native American tribe. Edwards rightfully seeks her out in order to save her, but, ten years too late in finding her, she identifies more with the tribe than with her former way of life. The film could have done just about anything with this moral conundrum (especially since Edwards implies earlier in the film that he would kill her if she ended up “becoming one of them,”) but instead brushes this perspective to the side. He “rescues” her quickly, and the camera never even looks at her face for the rest of the film. How she feels isn’t just unimportant, it’s non-existent.
In Taxi Driver, Schrader intentionally re-uses this reluctance from a “damsel in distress” to show us extent of the protagonist’s delusions. The woman in question here is a twelve year old prostitute (Jodie Foster) who left her parents for unknown reasons to live with (and fall in love with?) a pimp named “Sport” (Harvey Keitel.) Again, there’s good reason that one might want to remove her from these circumstances, but as Bickle takes it on himself to repeatedly meet and plead with her, she claims to be firmly, deeply against the idea of going back to her family. Bickle’s response is to absolutely destroy the brothel that she works in, killing all the men present. This sequence is just about the most violent that Scorsese has concocted; by its end, it is a literal bloodbath, and it represents the salvation that Travis so desperately seeks. As cops enter the blood-soaked room and behold the battle’s aftermath, Travis puts his gun-shaped, blood-drenched fingers to head and fires over and over, a smile on his face.
The other relationships in the film, including Bickle’s brief, ill-advised courtship of Betsy (Cybill Shepard), and his half-imagined meetings with presidential candidate Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) are not as well remembered, but seem to be the strange heart of the film. In one meeting with Palantine, Bickle asks him, should he win, to “just take this city and just… just flush it down the fuckin’ toilet,“ and it’s the first time we see his cold neutrality become hostility. He ultimately decides to try and assassinate the Senator, but fails. Why he does this is never made clear, but seems so absolutely essential to the story that it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps he wanted the Secret Service agents, who he so fervently feigned interest in earlier, to wipe him from the Earth and end his pain.
His relationship with Betsy, who is introduced as an ethereal, Hitchcockian goddess, (“She is alone. They…cannot…touch…her…”) is certainly doomed from before it starts, but to watch Travis squirm and pose his way into a date with her is a testament to the acting prowess of Robert DeNiro, who combines just the right amount of stoicism and that certain confused bemusement that comes from a lack of education. He takes her to see a Swedish porno film, and she hates it. “It’s about as exciting to me as saying ‘let’s fuck,’“ she says. Something about Bickle’s tepid nonchalance towards porn tells me that sex was never on his mind.
The summer that this film was shot, there was a heat wave, which covers everyone and everything is a glistening, steamy sweat. The sanitation department was also on strike that summer, and piles of sagging trash overflow into the streets from all angles. There’s a grimace on everyone’s face as street scenes drift by in slow motion, set to the mourning, romantic, weirdly intense jazz score penned by Bernard Herrmann (it was his best and final piece.) Does the environment make the man, or the man make the environment? This film gives no answer as we never leave Bickle’s head. We see what he sees, and, due to Scorsese’s absolute mastery of the language of cinema, we also knows what he feels. Consider the scene in the diner when he drops an Alka-Seltzer into his water and we slowly zoom into the details of the fizzing bubbles. We then cut to a panning shot of pimps at other tables who may or not be looking at him. If it doesn’t connect well with words, it does with film: Bickle’s uneasy self-consciousness pervades every frame of every scene of the film.
Overall, in ways that I cannot convey through words, Taxi Driver is one of the most gripping, enthralling, perfect films I’ve ever seen. It is, quite simply, the greatest crime film ever made, and it represents the dizzying peak of every fantastic career involved. A quick note on the film’s debated ending: Paul Schrader, on a Reddit AMA of all places, said that the film ended the way it did so that the last shot could be spliced with the first shot and that the film could, in theory, be looped eternally. Travis Bickle, in a delicious irony, may have become a media-hero, but he is unchanged and has not received the pseudo-redemption that he seemingly hungers so strongly for. If death did not take him, what will?
To quote Schrader, “…he’s not going to be the hero next time.”