100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 66: TAXI DRIVER

by Daniel Suddes


Taxi Driver (1976) –  Dir: Martin Scorsese  Original  Screenplay: Paul Schrader  Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Sybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle OSCAR COUNT (0) – Nominated for Best Picture, Leading Actor and Supporting Actress

This is Martin Scorsese’s second entrant in this countdown. To view his other entry see below:

98: GOODFELLAS

The best art is the art that holds a giant mirror up to society. No film captures the American spirit, crushed by the Vietnam War and Watergate, more than Taxi Driver. The main character Travis Bickle is the embodiment of American weariness and doubt. Throughout the film, he tries to do what is right. However, no one seems to recognize his intentions and shun him. Is it any surprise that Bickle was a Vietnam War veteran? It should not be.  Travis Bickle is the American attitude at the bicentennial.  It is this attitude that makes it one of the greatest films of all time.

Like Travis’ mind, the film flows frequently into non sequiturs. Taxi Driver does not have a plot in any conventional sense (Scorsese joked that the only film of his with a plot was The Departed). It is meant to be more of a character study. Bickle is an insomniac who takes a job as a taxi driver to keep his mind occupied. He starts dating a woman named Betsy, becomes involved a presidential campaign, and then tries to save a young prostitute. That’s basically it – but the film is not held together by what happens to Travis. It is held together by how Travis interprets what is going on. He sees himself as the sort of hero that people such as the Unabomber thought they were.  He talks about how much he wants to clean up the city, but is just as much a part of the filth as what he criticizes. He is racist, misogynistic, socially awkward, under educated, and unstable. Bickle is not meant to be any sort of role model.

That is why it is strange that many still point to Bickle as some sort of way of life. So effective an anti hero his he that many believe him to be a hero. His final thoughts are about an act of heroism. He does destroy some clearly bad people, but the ending is not a happy one – frankly, I do believe that the coda occurs only in Travis’ mind (one reason is that it is probably the only scene he is not personally witnessing). Yet I know many who say Bickle is their favorite character. Maybe it is because people are able to understand why he feels the way he feels. Even if he is bizarre, he is among the most three dimensional characters ever in film. That is certainly an accomplishment to create any character that causes that sort of reaction.

What does this say about the American spirit? Bickle, like America, was quite confused. Bickle felt that the New York was filled with “filth and scum” and felt himself as a hero for pointing it out. To Travis, New York City is his world. But America felt the same way about the entire world. It was “polluted” and it was up to someone to clean it. Of course, the more Bickle (and the U.S.) tried to change it, the worse the situation became. The film ends with Travis on the brink. No one is even sure of his ultimate fate (Scorsese says that it is meant to be symbolic) but one thing is certain – it will be very difficult for him to return to any sort of normalcy.  “You’re only as healthy as you feel” Bickle keeps saying. If that is the case, then Travis and the nation he lived in were both very sick.

Scorsese, in his other works, would often talk about America’s past and values. But this was one of the few times that he truly managed to reflect an attitude about a very confused time in the best way possible. The goal of any artist is to show society what it is becoming and then try to change it for the better. I hope that people are still listening to his message.

There are many great scenes in Taxi Driver, but everyone remembers the famous “you talkin to me” scene. Why is this? I think it’s because the scene perfectly captures Bickle’s character. Many would not notice, but Bickle is actually quite meek. He tries to be as polite as possible to whoever is in his car and whoever he meets in public (such as a clerk at a movie theater who turns him away). In this scene, he tries to assert whatever of his masculinity is left. That is why he starts by aiming his gun (which is not really a gun) at his old self. Of course, this scene is one of the many about Bickle’s descent into madness that leads to great violence. But for now, it’s all about the build up.


 


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