Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is an unstable Vietnam War veteran who suffers from insomnia. He decides to drive a New York City taxicab and work long hours, so he can fight off the loneliness and boredom of everyday life. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” says Bickle, as he narrates an evening of tedious driving. He sees the city as a sewer full of lowlifes and dirt, and hopes that change will come to clean it all away. One day Travis meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign volunteer whom he takes a romantic interest in. Things don’t go smoothly, though, and he comes to the conclusion that Betsy is no different than the rest of the loathsome people on the streets. After running into Iris (Jodie Foster), an underage prostitute controlled by an abusive pimp (Harvey Keitel), Travis decides that it’s finally time to take some action. He purchases some firearms, gets into shape, and awaits a public rally where Senator Charles Palantine (the man whose campaign Betsy has been working on) is going to speak…
Taxi Driver is a brilliant character study of a lonely man who will no longer accept society’s flaws. What makes it brilliant (among other things) is Robert De Niro’s outstanding portrayal of Travis Bickle, one of the most memorable cinematic characters of all time. At first the man quietly expresses distaste for his surroundings; however, as more and more things push him over the edge, we begin to notice what kind of change he is going through. Perhaps the cleverest element of Bickle’s transformation is that he begins the film as its protagonist, and ends it as an antihero.
De Niro is not the only actor here who gives a great performance; the cast is all-around excellent. In one of her earliest onscreen roles, Jodie Foster (as an actual child actress, not an adult with a convincing costume and makeup) plays a child prostitute with the utmost conviction, while Keitel fits perfectly into the sleazebag pimp role. Almost every performance is either above average or great, down to an unforgettable Martin Scorsese cameo.
Speaking of Martin Scorsese, the direction is pitch-perfect. If you check up the word gritty in the dictionary, the definition will read “Taxi Driver.” So precise is the film’s portrayal of the slimiest parts of New York City, that one can almost taste and smell the grime and smut. From the hookers and their procurers roaming around, to the seedy porn theaters, this is a dark, dangerous, and smelly place. The film is very much a “mood” movie, and uses its shooting locations to generate its atmosphere. Of course, no mention of Taxi Driver‘s atmosphere would be complete without bringing up Bernard Herrmann’s haunting and iconic score. It is the final soundtrack Herrmann comprised: what a way to go out!
Grittiness aside, Scorsese knows how to use his camera for full audience effect. Late in the film, Travis gets a Mohawk haircut to disguise himself. The camera lingers on the lower half of his body for a while, before suddenly jerking upwards so the viewer can see Bickle’s face. This is just one example of the director effectively using his medium to surprise the audience.
Accolades must, of course, be given to screenwriter Paul Schrader, who penned the film’s script. Not only does the screenplay take a fairly low-key story and make it endlessly fascinating, the dialogue is also endlessly quotable. Watching the movie for a second time, I was reminded that just about every line of narration that comes out of De Niro’s mouth could be a bitter epitaph on the gravestone of some troubled person.
Martin Scorsese has crafted a real classic with Taxi Driver, a film that is thought provoking and moody, and takes us to the deepest, darkest places in the human mind.