Taxi Driver (1976) – Martin Scorsese’s brilliant meditation on urban alienation and loneliness

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Here you have a character who is surrounded by people. Yet it’s the story of loneliness…and you can only do real, true loneliness in a crowded atmosphere.” – Paul Schrader

Travis Bickle is a former Vietnam war veteran who despises pretty much anything and anyone around him. The man has his demons. One of them happens to be insomnia and in an attempt to cure himself off it, he decides to look for work as a New York cab driver. He knows the risks and he is confident that he can handle them. We see that Travis leads a painfully lonely existence, regularly frequenting porno theaters and trying to chat up with the lady at the counter, who is in no mood to date a guy who seems to her like another one of those annoying perverts. One day, he comes across this attractive Presidential campaign organizer called Betsy and is immediately smitten by her. They start dating and during one of these dates, he takes her to one of these porno theaters. Rest assured, things don’t go well and she walks away from him, leaving Travis perplexed. He tries to rekindle their friendship but it’s not successful.  After a brief outburst at Betsy’s office and a run in with a lunatic passenger, he decides to get “organizized” (so it says on a banner in his room). He acquires firearms, subjects himself to a rigorous fitness regime and finally decides to find a meaningful purpose for his existence.

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Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a bonafide American classic. I came across this film when I was going through one of the worst phases of my life. Watching it was an oddly therapeutic experience for me. The script is the brainchild of Paul Schrader and it’s plainly obvious that this work was very, very personal. This could very well be an exploration of his own psyche. And the reason why the film was such a massive success is because there are countless individuals on this planet who look at this film and say, “Oh my God! This film is about me.” (In a documentary on the making of the film,  Schrader shares a fascinating story about someone breaking into his apartment once and threatening to kill him because he was so embarrassed to see that his life had been turned into a film and how Schrader finally succeeded in convincing him that the story was not about him but Schrader himself and every other lonely individual on this planet.)

Scorsese and Schrader together have undoubtedly crafted a truly flawless masterpiece. This is arguably Robert De Niro’s finest performance. I often re-enact certain sequences from the film, especially the exchange between De Niro and Harvey Keitel during their climactic confrontation. There is a disquieting eeriness in the way De Niro delivers his lines (“How’s everything in the pimp business? How is Iris? You don’t know anybody by the name of Iris? No? You got a gun?”) and he makes the character feel so frighteningly real that I was in complete awe of this phenomenal actor. Travis is clearly an unpleasant character, a profoundly disturbed individual who is trying so hard to make sense of his own miserable existence in the world. We find it so hard to not take his side. We feel sad for him when we see him slowly descend into madness and although we are eager to see where his character ends up, we are still not sure if we want to see that, considering the route he has chosen.

He talks to his mirror (“Are you talking to me?”) and fashions himself a crusader fighting society’s ills. He constantly deludes himself into believing that he is the kind of hero that’s going to solve everyone’s problems. I’m sure some of us has experienced similar thoughts ourselves in the past but what we didn’t do was take a gun and go on a killing rampage. And this is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film. We have grown to admire this character and see him as someone who represents us but then gives us a jolt by making us ask – If we can identify with someone who thinks that the antidote to society’s problems is a bullet, what are we supposed to think about ourselves? Should we feel good? Should we feel bad? And here lies the real brilliance of the film.

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It’s not a very difficult film to comprehend and it feels more relevant now than ever. (I say that because a few of my Indian friends wonder why I adore this film so much.) Well, everything makes so much sense if you consider the era it was made in. The Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal happened during this period and made a lot of Americans lose faith in their government. Travis did not receive a pat on the back or a medal for his services in the war so as a sort of compensation, he decides to turn himself into a hero – this time a real one – by trying to save a 12-yr old prostitute (played by a young Jodie Foster) and causing enough bloodshed in the process that it is both gruesome and cathartic in equal measures.

Bernard Hermann’s evocative score and Michael Chapman’s hypnotic, surreal and atmospheric cinematography not only gives you a real sense of the dangerous and murky world Travis inhabits but also the dark corners of his own mind. There has been plenty of discussions about the film’s ambiguous ending. Scorsese has mentioned in some of his interviews that the ending is supposed to be ironic. The last shot of Travis getting distracted by something he saw in his rear view mirror brings up lots of interesting questions. Every time I see the film, I notice something new and if that’s not a sign of a great film, I don’t know what is. The film was unfairly ignored by the Oscars (with the exception of 4 nominations) but was befittingly awarded with the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival.

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4 comments

  1. One of top 5 movies ever for sure and a very good review considering its your first official attempt. I wish you explored a bit on why Iris inspires him to ‘to clean the scum’. He must have chosen to help many other Iriss’ on the street, yet it is her who makes him take the matters into his hand. Does he identify himself with her? Was he abandoned too like Iris? Feel like watching this movie again.

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    • On your query regarding Travis’ motivation to save Iris. I think it’s simply the after effect of his failure to assassinate Sen. Palantine. He thinks if he can take on someone big like Palantine, then killing a lowly pimp like Sport is not a big deal. I don’t think it has anything to do with his past. He just happened to meet her and in his mind, he starts to set up all these goals. Date Betsy – failed. Next, Assassinate Palantine – failed. Now the only thing remaining is Iris. He wants to do at least that successfully.

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