Taxi Driver critique

by Gregster


Taxi Driver” brings a dread and discomfort to the screen that few films have. It is perhaps the most deranged noir film ever made. The film puts us in the head of a reprehensible character and we are forced to understand his pathology.  It is one of the few films that can rank among the novels of the existentialist movement. The film is also one of the few American films that is on par with the works of Bergman in its explorations of human nature. The film is a landmark in visual style, acting and screenwriting. It also introduces one of the most fascinating characters in fiction. Travis Bickle is a walking contradiction as Cybil Sheppard’s Betsy tells him in the film, which is an understatement. Travis is violent and tormented by his existence as a human being.  What is fascinating is that we don’t really know why Travis is the way he is, we are never given any insight to what made him this way.

The little insight we have of his past is he was a Vietnam veteran and that he has insomnia. Kolker compares Bickel to two icons of cinema Ethan Edwards of John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in regards to Travis’s lineage, “Travis Bickle is the legitimate child of John Wayne and Norman Bates: pure, self-righteous, violent ego and grinning, homicidal lunatic, each the obverse of the other, each equally dangerous.” (Kolker 239) Travis is the missing link between Norman Bates and Ethan Edwards. Travis awkwardness and Midwestern behavior comes out of Bates and his deep self righteousness, racism and mission to save a young woman who does not want to be saved comes from Edwards.

As a writer I am astonished at the screenplay. The screenplay by Paul Schrader is one of the most literary screenplays ever produced in America.  Schrader’s script takes a film noir plot and instills in it the psychological underpinnings and questions of Dostoyevsky. It makes sense the script has an influence of Dostoyevsky since in Biskind it is declared, “He rewrote the Taxi Driver script, wanted it to be an American Notes from the Underground, an American Pickpocket.” (Biskind 295)  Schrader in creating Travis Bickel gives an insight on loneliness but self-imposed loneliness.  Schrader went into great depth in the documentary “God’s Lonely Man” on the “Taxi Driver” DVD Schrader states when talking about the script being about loneliness; “We are not lonely by nature we make ourselves lonely. Travis makes himself lonely” (Schrader).  Schrader is right Travis causes his loneliness by pushing people away through his actions and behavior.

Scorsese as director of the film creates a visual style that brings the audience into Travis’s warped psyche. Scorsese and his director of photography Michael Chapman’s decision in regards to the cinematography was all of Travis’s scenes are from his point of view. This allows for the viewer to relate to Travis. This is clear in the use of close ups on Travis’s eyes and the point of view shots of Travis looking at what he despises about the world. One particular shot that shows this is in a shot of pimps who are African American in a cafeteria, the way it is shot causes the viewer to be repelled by these characters not because they are pimps but because they are black the same reason Bickel does because of his casual and not quite understood racism. In certain points of the film scenes that do not even include Travis in the scene it is from his point of view. In a scene between Iris and Sport that shows the revolting pimp being romantic with the child prostitute, through a shot of Travis Bickle outside as the scene ends it stays with the film’s subjective visual style. Yet one shot in the film that shows Travis Bickel’s personality and pain is in a scene when he is talking to Betsy on the phone after the date where he is asking her when will they see each other again, as it becomes more obvious that Betsy wants nothing to do with him the camera tracks away from Travis and focuses on a vacant hallway because it is too painful to watch.

The visual choices in the film also are to create a film that almost is not part of reality. The use of gels, slow motion, flat on establishing shots creates a nightmarish folktale aesthetic.

Scorsese’s depiction of Time Square is through the eye of a director deeply influenced by his Catholic upbringing. Time Square through Scorsese’s eye as hell on earth is not that far off from what New York in 1976 was like. Scorsese shows in the film a New York not seen in post cards or even in the less flattering Naked City tv series; it’s the New York of garbage strikes, a prominent sex industry, an ineffective John Lindsay, escalating violence and drug use.

“Taxi Driver” is considered one of the most violent films ever made going further than “The Wild Bunch” and “A Clockwork Orange” in its depiction of ultra violence. What people forget is that “Taxi Driver” is not a constantly violent film compared to other films. The film does not show ultra violence until the final 15 minutes of the film with the shoot out in the whorehouse. The climax is a build up of nearly two hours of tension from De Niro’s performance and threats of violence through dialogue and confrontations. In fact Travis does not truly commit true violence until this, before the shootout he had shot a man in self-defense to prevent a robbery that Scorsese shows close to bloodless. In fact in that scene the most violent part is at the end of it when Victor Argo’s character beats the near dead man to death to protect Travis who does not have a permit for his gun.   The shootouts violence is justified in its surreal yet stark tone in presenting violence as it is. Scorsese does not take lightly the pain and aftermath of violence as a James Cameron or even Sergio Leone would have. Throughout the sequence a guard who is shot and whose hand has been shot off is in horrific pain and does not simply die. I see a lot of influence of Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain in the sequence in that it takes forever for Bickel to kill this guy until he finally puts a bullet in his head.

The ending also asks the question where is the line between a villain and a hero, in many ways the film shows that it comes down to who the victims of the violence are. Had Travis killed the candidate he would have ended up a villain but because he kills a pimp and johns of a child prostitute he is a populist hero. The final moment of the film makes it clear that Travis will commit violence again but that next time he might not be so lucky in being portrayed as a hero.

“Taxi Driver” remains a film that over thirty years after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival is one that leaves its viewer debating the character of Travis Bickel and its ending. In a film that is anything but hopeful it is a cautionary to show people that have those times of loneliness that they are not alone and that they cannot allow it to over take their life.