Reel Review - Taxi Driver (1976)
“A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or the others crazy?” — Albert Einstein.
Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, chronicles the deteriorating mental state of Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro).
This seminal work in American cinema has already earned its place in film history. It received four nods at the 1977 Academy Awards in a year that included other historical heavy-hitters like Rocky and Network—although the Academy didn’t show Scorsese any love with a nomination for his direction. It won the Palme d’Or despite eliciting boos for its violent climax from the stiff-necked crowd at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s an entrant in the National Film Registry. It consistently ranks amongst the greatest films of all time.
Suffice to say, there is little that I, or any other film fan or critic today could say about Scorsese’s masterful direction that hasn’t already been said—except, perhaps, that it’s my personal favourite of his. There aren’t many words of praise for legendary composer Bernard Herrmann’s final—and faultless—score that haven’t already been used. There aren’t any performances, scenes, sets or behind-the-scenes factoids that aren’t already course subjects at film schools all their own. So, why bother writing another review of Taxi Driver?
Well, because, as classic works of film and literature have a tendency to do, Taxi Driver—this work of yesteryear—carries a prescient message.
Writer Paul Schrader pulled directly from “the muse” in writing Taxi Driver. He claimed to have squirreled himself away from the world and to have written the first draft in “under a fortnight” and his feverish writing is practically palpable in the final product. The world that Schrader created is less of a fiction, less of a setting, and more of a snapshot—an encapsulation—of the American ethos circa the mid-to-late 1970s.
That same sensation of tapping into “the muse” or into a moment is present in Scorsese’s direction as well. Scorsese and crew filmed Taxi Driver in the midst of a record New York heat wave and labour strike and, intentionally or not, the very air of the time permeates each frame as if the heat and stench of piles of uncollected garbage on the streets of Manhattan tinged the film reels. It all gives Taxi Driver a kind of whimsical nostalgia that—with the help of cinematographer Michael Chapman and the perspective granted by 50years—feels dreamlike.
There are obvious parallels to draw between Taxi Driver’s 1976 world and our own COVID-crazy world today. In the film, it’s the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Today, we’re dealing with the aftermath of the Afghan War. There’s labour unrest stemming from long-seeded economic disenfranchisement and a spike in violent crime. Perhaps how we got to that dystopia wasn’t the same—there’s no mention of a pandemic in Taxi Driver—but we get there all the same.
In fact, our central character, the disaffected Travis Bickle, is as ready-made a protagonist or anti-hero for his time as he is for the disillusionment of the post-9/11, post-2008, post-pandemic 2020s. He’s a character whose strict moral code becomes distorted and warped in the funhouse mirror that his society has become.
It’s a dysfunctional society. An angrier one. A seedier one. A society riddled with crime that seems to go without punishment—on the streets and in the halls of power alike. It’s a society on edge, full of people on edge. But maybe they can’t quite say why, except that they’re unhappy. Unhappy with whom? Unhappy about what? No one can really say. The film never really tries to explain this pervasive sense of malaise, it just captures it… in equally glorious and gritty cinematography.
The only one who seems to notice the social deterioration—perhaps because he’s been in a type of isolation for so long—is our Travis Bickle. As he says to Cybill Shepherd’s character, Betsy, “I saw in your eyes and I saw the way you carried yourself that you’re not a happy person. And I think you need something. And if you want to call it a friend, you can call it a friend.”
It seems like Bickle is determined to be—or, perhaps, at first, is simply convinced that he is—a positive change in the world around him. However, with lines like, “Shit… I’m waiting for the sun to shine,” and “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” its apparent that Bickle is less concerned about positivity and more interested in what he perceives, perhaps correctly, to be righteousness.
As the plot unfolds, however—or, as the funhouse mirror bends—it becomes apparent that, even if Bickle is right, even if there is some sort of social malaise eating away at everyone around him—and there certainly is—and even if his moral code is right, he’s not quite right himself. Bickle’s own psychosis—no doubt in part a product of his social isolation—begins to grate against the shortcomings of the society he finds himself in.
Take Bickle’s last date with Betsy, for example; if we can treat Betsy as a stand-in for the broader society and Bickle’s tether to it. A healthier woman—that is to say, a healthier society that is less cold, less angry, less on edge—would have greeted Bickle’s mistake in date-night movie selection with understanding or, at least, the benefit of the doubt. He’s a recluse, he’s been away, he doesn’t really know what’s playing in the theatres. Instead, Betsy assumes the worst of Bickle and rejects him. It’s an uncaring society, an ungracious one and unmerciful. Call it “cancel culture”, if you will.
It’s tempting to paint Bickle as an “Incel”—an angry young man who is sexually frustrated. But Bickle’s own apparent disinterest in sex throughout the film begs for a deeper analysis. It is less that Bickle can’t find a mate and more that he can’t find his place in society at all—i.e., his “displacement” and isolation is multifaceted and not simply linked to romance.
Further, Bickle’s reaction to Betsy—and, more broadly, to his society—is equally, if not more, troubled. It’s not his ensuing persistence that is troublesome so much so as it is his reaction to rejection and failure (his reaction to Betsy, or the society writ large, “cancelling” him). Bickle’s reaction in his own words betrayed the danger of his unfocused or misaligned intensity: “Let me tell you something. You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna die in a hell, just like the rest of ’em!”
By the end of the film, of course, Bickle believes it to be his purpose to send “the rest of ‘em” to hell himself. And herein, finally, lies the message for our own times: it is a precautionary tale about the damage that one, perhaps rightly, disaffected young man can do.
It’s not even clear that Taxi Driver takes a side on the matter. In fact, the ending of the film seems to be a question mark. Would Bickle’s society have lauded him as a hero if they had known that he had bungled an assassination attempt prior to his “heroics/vigilantism”? Probably not but then, it’s not even clear that they should have been praising him for taking the law into his own hands in the first place. Perhaps they would have praised his dispatching of a politician as corrupted as the society he wants to govern.
Sadly, our real world has gone a little screwy in a way that is not too dissimilar to 1970s New York as captured in Taxi Driver. Our topsy-turvy world has the same feeling of unreality that Scorsese and Chapman gave this 1976 masterstroke.
Whether or not one perceives Travis Bickle as a hero, an anti-hero, an accidental hero, a vigilante or a villain is a matter of perspective. A perspective that is difficult to see clearly in the “funhouse mirror” that has become our society. To end where we began with Einstein’s question: “Am I or the others crazy?” or, “Is it me or the world that has gone mad?”
If Einstein couldn’t figure it out, I don’t think we have much hope of getting there.