Robert De Niro plays a former Vietnam Vet who takes a job as a taxi driver in New York City to compensate for his insomnia. As the film progresses, he slowly becomes infatuated and sickened by what he witnesses on the streets around him. After a failed romantic liaison with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), Travis sinks into an unstable mode of thought. He becomes more paranoid and delusional as time progresses and soon becomes involved with a plot to assassinate a Presidential Candidate. When this plot is foiled, he sets his focus on freeing Iris, a twelve year old prostitute (Jodie Foster), from the clutches of the indecent and amoral.
Taxi Driver arrived at a time when cinema (and society) was in the midst of a cultural revitalization. In the past ten to fifteen years or so, the world had changed; people had changed. Becoming increasingly aware of the faults and lies perpetrated by the leaders of this country, people began to voice their opinions and demand changes as a result. Eventually, issues such as sexuality, race, freedom, peace and war all became defining themes and began to influence the country in many ways. Social values and moral ethics were challenged by people who, up until this point, had never had the chance to voice their opinions. As a result, the 1960’s and 1970’s became decades in which society sought understanding and underwent great change. This was no better visualized then through the means of cinema.
Society no longer wanted the happy and utopian viewpoints of Hollywood films. They wanted reality. With society in so much turmoil, people wanted real heroes; in a sense, anti-heroes. They wanted to identify with the type of people who made mistakes and committed acts not defined within the laws of civilized behavior. Reality was not about what Hollywood portrayed but rather about what was going on in society at that present moment. People wanted to be respected. They no longer wanted to be taken advantage of through lies. In other words, people wanted the truth.
During this transition, many film directors took advantage and rose to prominence as a result. Directors such as William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Hal Ashby, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese all rose to a level of critical acclaim through their raw, politically incorrect view of the world around them. This was a cinema of change; this was the cinema of the auteur. This was a cinema where the director truly called the shots. Studios and producers were unaware of how to coexist with this Cultural Revolution and as a result lost control of the industry for a short time period.
Taxi Driver is unrelenting in its view of the city of New York. Immediately, this film becomes restricted in its’ narration. There are many shots by Scorsese which focus solely on the eyes of Bickle. The viewer only sees what Travis Bickle sees. He is the (troubled) protagonist who controls the film through his actions. His actions and modes of thought consistently unnerve the audience. We, as the viewer, must identify with a character that is embittered, paranoid and delusional. In Hollywood films, the studios would be weary of ever creating a protagonist with such a magnitude of issues. A character that is difficult to relate to would turn off most viewers but this was a different time and a different form of cinema.
One of the many characteristics that lends an authentic touch to the film is by identifying Travis as a Vietnam Vet. There have been many films striving to depict the horrors and brutality of the Vietnam War and what it has done to individual. Films such as Coming Home (1978), Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) all have strived to depict the disillusionment and anger felt by many as a result of this war. Taking this into account perhaps gives the audience a better understanding of Travis’s turmoil. This is no way condoning the actions of Travis but rather helps to better understand him as a character within the film.
One of the great feats of this film is in the performance of Robert De Niro. The viewer may not fully understand the enigmatic Bickle but De Niro is able to give this character multiple depths. Yes, he is paranoid and eventually does turn into an erratic, unstable and violent person but the viewer also witnesses a character desperate to fit in. He does not know how to realign himself back into society and as a result, looks foolish and frightening. For example, his interest in Betsy is conveyed as amateurish and awkward. Prior to his asking her out on a date, he watches her from afar, a stalker in a sense. His intentions are meaningful but he is unaware of how to go about it. When he does do it, he stumbles through his dialogue and barely escapes with a “yes” answer. On the first date, Travis buys her a present (acceptable standards by society’s terms) but inadvertently messes everything up when he takes Betsy to a porno film (pornography is deemed as defiant to the norms of society). This is a character that is struggling to fit in. Society has changed; he has changed. He has witnessed atrocities that have left an undeniable impact on his psyche. Once he is rejected, the film convincingly conveys his descent into madness. He has failed at everything. He does not understand his purpose. He is a lost and lonely soul who craves acceptance by a city that is harsh and unloving.
Travis soon comes to a revelation about his purpose in life. Early on in the film, Travis meets Iris, a twelve year old prostitute, attempting to jump into his cab. She is quickly rushed away by Matthew (Harvey Keitel), who proceeds to toss a twenty dollar bill into the seat so Travis can forget about the incident. What Travis witnesses here is more than just an isolated moment. This is his moment of calling in his mind. He does not realize it at first but he comes to understand that it is his destiny to rescue this innocent twelve year old from the clutches of the evil and hellish landscape that she has become a part of. The character of Matthew is interesting in that he comes to represent everything Travis despises about the city. He is the embodiment of all that is evil and unnatural. He has corrupted Iris and robbed her of her innocence. Travis, good intentions aside, has now become a conflicted guardian angel, filled with anger and rage determined to save Iris.
Martin Scorsese helps to create an environment that revels in its sleaze and ugliness. Steam hisses from beneath sewers and in the distance there are the sounds of traffic noise and wailing sirens. This world is inhabited by prostitutes, pimps and drug pushers. The bleak visual look of the film is also accompanied by a haunting score created by Bernard Hermann. He creates such a diverse contrast through his use of music that it is quickly understood to act as a representative of Travis’s fragile mindset.
This film is unrelenting in its goal of creating an authentic, indecent world. The performances are grandiose and the story is fractured and conflicting, much like the character of Travis Bickle. This film is over thirty years old and is still as frightening and relevant as ever. It creates a mood that is undeniably real and uncomfortable. The viewer is given a ride into this lurid nightmare and, as a result, is never the same again.