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“I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” —The Departed (2006)
The crucial moment in Taxi Driver comes just after the climax. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) has killed a pimp, his henchman, and a john in an effort to save Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old girl who has been victimized by the trio. The act of vengeance or salvation, depending on how you look at it, has concluded, and as the police burst in to arrest Travis, the camera leaves him, backing slowly down the hallway, past the blood-splattered walls and onto the New York City street, where a cross section of society—journalists, police officers, and onlookers—has gathered to get a peek at the chaos inside. Martin Scorsese lingers for an uncomfortably long time on this scene, while Bernard Hermann’s ominous score, imitating an orchestra being pleasingly squeezed in a vice, tells you something important is occurring.
The moment portrays a society processing the havoc it has wrought and deciding to twist it into something more palatable. Travis is hailed as a hero by the tabloids for his vigilantism. Iris’ parents write him a grateful letter, praising him for returning their daughter and inviting him to visit them at their home. His old crush, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who he once thoroughly creeped out when he took her to a porno theater on their second date, is suddenly looking at him the way a prom queen looks at the high school quarterback. Travis is a product of the city, but its other inhabitants don’t want to see that. They can’t handle the ambiguity of a deranged man saving a child from evildoers, while being an evildoer himself. Taxi Driver sees the whole, ugly truth.
Its veracity has been upheld by the passage of time. In 1976, the film was widely received as Scorsese’s first masterpiece; he’d already impressed critics with Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Taxi Driver won the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for De Niro. It was also heavily criticized for its brutal violence. Initially rated X by the MPAA Ratings Board, Scorsese desaturated the film’s color to make the blood less shocking, and earned an R. Nonetheless, it’s a grotesque scene of revenge that ultimately challenges the vigilante fantasies that were rampant onscreen and off in the 1970s. At this time, America’s cities, especially New York, were going bankrupt and failing to provide basic services to citizens, leading to a nationwide uptick in crime. Films such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish fulfilled the testosterone-driven fantasies of urban White men wanting to “clean up” the city streets.
Only Taxi Driver probed the fantasy for its weak spots. Travis, physically surrounded but emotionally isolated, channels his frustrations into every vein of American violence: war, racism, misogyny, and self-aggrandizement. A former Marine and veteran of the Vietnam War (which had ended just a year before the film’s release), he seems to have brought the war home with him, seeing only enemies and allies as he makes his way through the city at night. As his mind begins to unravel, he reverts to his training. One of the film’s most stunning shots is at a political rally when the camera dollies across the crowd from the waist down, then pans up to find Travis wearing his Marine jacket, his hair shaved into a mohawk—toying with imagery of both classic westerns and ’70s punk culture. Marines in Vietnam would often give themselves Mohawks before embarking on particularly dangerous missions.
Bickle’s misogyny is twisted from an old-fashioned, prefeminist view of women. In his search for meaning, he settles on a pair of White, blond women whose purity, he believes, can save him from the hell of the city. He thinks he’s saving them; he persuades Betsy to have coffee with him by telling her she’s “an unhappy person” and that she needs a friend. What he’s really doing is idealizing both women to such a degree that they can only disappoint him.
“She’s just like all the others, cold and distant,” he says of Betsy, after she finally rejects his advances. You can hear echoes of Travis’s woman-hating in the manifesto of Elliot Rodger, whose sexual frustrations were his stated motivation for killing two members of a University of California, Santa Barbara, sorority house (and four other people), in 2014, or the writing of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered their classmates at Columbine High School in 1999 and expressed contempt for the school’s popular kids in their journals.
Sexually frustrated and trained in violence, it’s only a matter of time before Travis explodes. He purchases guns from a traveling salesman, purportedly to protect himself, although it’s clear his relationship with them runs far deeper. Scorsese lingers on the long shaft of the firearms in these scenes, driving home the psychosexual impulses behind Travis’s thirst for violence. If he can’t get his rocks off, he’ll find catharsis another way. Eventually, he does, rescuing Iris from sex slavery, killing a Latino pimp (played inexplicably by a very White Harvey Keitel), and getting revenge on a city that has ignored his outstretched arms.
Released so close to the end of the Vietnam War, Taxi Driver was seen as another entry in the canon of New Hollywood, where young auteurs blended the radical, expressionist filmmaking techniques of the French New Wave with the nihilistic disillusionment of the Watergate Era, resulting in some of the most startling films in American cinema. In its initial reception, the emphasis was on the violence and virtuosity. Years later, however, we can see how Scorsese pinpointed the fear and resentment at the heart of the White American male who feels the world has passed him by. Travis’ fear of Black people is subtle but unmistakable; he eyeballs them as if they’re the Viet Cong. His idealization of women may be borne from his own insecurity and inability to really connect, but it’s obvious that it will transform into misogyny, assuming it didn’t start from there. When Iris mentions “women’s lib” to Travis, his face contorts into a nasty scowl.
In Travis Bickle, we see America’s mass shooters, its MAGA fanatics, its new wave of White supremacists, and every other dank corner of our nation in which murderous opposition to any kind of progress grows like toxic mold. If Taxi Driver reads as so much more than a cautionary tale, however, it’s largely due to the perfectly calibrated performance from De Niro, who transforms from a shyboy into a sociopath so incrementally that, even at the film’s end, it’s difficult to determine his true nature. If you had to pick the moment that he turns, it might be the scene between Travis and the Wizard (Peter Boyle), a veteran cabbie who usually has all the answers but comes up empty when Travis timidly reaches out for help.
“I just wanna go out and …” Travis says, unable to even complete the thought. De Niro’s eyes scan the city landscape behind him, unable to express himself, looking for something, anything to give him purpose. The world gives him nothing back.
The world may be empty, but Taxi Driver certainly is not. The cinematography by Michael Chapman brings New York to life as a tactile hellscape of neon lights, billowing steam, and slick streets. You can feel the heat coming off of the asphalt (it was actually filmed during a heatwave). You can smell the sweat. The pure cinema of Taxi Driver enhances its transformation from character study to horror, making its madness palpable and setting the stage for maximum impact in its final eruption of violence. The shots reverberate in your mind, and the spurts of blood, desaturated as they may be, will have you diving out of the way. Through its vision, craft, and creative courage, Taxi Driver puts you in the passenger seat of a crashing vessel, a place the movies don’t usually go but life too often does. With visions of America’s cities in disrepair once again dancing through the heads of the nation’s reactionary class, the time to watch Taxi Driver is now, but then again, it always is.
Taxi Driver screens at 4 and 7 p.m. on May 2 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema as part of bargain Tuesdays. landmarktheatres.com. $7.