#8 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
Rarely has a movie set out to create a sense of uncomfortable loneliness and succeeded so well as Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader did in Taxi Driver. Born from Schrader’s own sense of isolation at a particularly unpleasant low point in his life, this tale of a loner cabbie is one of a man lost in a sea of people, unable to make any kind of connection, and left to his own delusions that take him into dangerous places. Unmoored from anything but his one-way conversation with his parents through letters and his journal, Bickel descends into violence in a searing portrait of loneliness mixed with, potentially, undiagnosed mental illness.
Bickel is a twenty-six year old former Marine from the Midwest who has come to New York City for undisclosed reasons only to end up becoming a taxi driver because he’s been trolling the streets of the city in the middle of the night and he might as well get paid for it. In the post-Vietnam era, Bickle is the sort of young man unconnected to much of his own past, much less the past of anything else. He is of the moment, looking out of his cab window at the filth of early 70s New York City and seeing a place he finds disgusting but refuses to leave. He wants the city cleaned up, but as a young man with no connections and no power, all he sees is a murky idea of a solution and no way to go about doing it. In the midst of all this is Betsy.
Betsy is a young woman, played by Cybil Shepherd, working for the Charles Palantine campaign for president. The first time we see her, and Bickle sees her, she’s walking through the streets of New York in a pristinely white dress, representing Bickle’s view of her as pure. She ends up being his one chance at real connection, but he has such trouble connecting with people that when he invites her to a movie, he sees it as completely natural to take her to a Swedish sex film, a gesture that she does not appreciate, breaking off any contact with him. I think it’s easy to see why she might risk a single date with the overearnest guy who marched up to her desk in the campaign office just to ask her out, but I can also easily see why she would shun him completely after taking him to a dirty movie. He was a bit of a risk that could have paid off and didn’t.
The flip side is that Bickle put himself out there and got rejected. His rejection over the phone, where the camera pans away at his painful failure, is a turning moment in the film. Bickle was working towards real connection, but his own missteps ended that completely. Immediately before his date with Betsy, he had even gotten Palantine into his cab where the senator had asked his opinion of what needed addressing in the country. Bickle could only talk about how he hated the scum of the city and it needed a cleansing rain. Left alone after Betsy dumps him, Bickle turns inward, shutting off the world around him that he finds so distasteful. He buys some illegal guns, practices with them endlessly while continuing to write about how awful the city is, and he scopes out Palantine’s campaign spots.
At the same time, Bickle keeps running into Iris, a twelve-year-old prostitute. She ends up representing something salvageable from the mess of a city, and he turns his attentions towards her. He offers her all of his money to get out and go back home to Pittsburgh just as he decides to use his gun skills on Palantine in an assassination attempt. When that is foiled, he marches right over to Iris’, kills her pimp and john (who ends up being coincidentally a local mafioso), nearly dying in the process, and becomes a hero in the papers.
I’ve watched a couple of movies recently that dealt with mental illness head on and I ended up calling them both trite (A Beautiful Mind and Welcome to Marwen). Taxi Driver doesn’t explicitly deal with the idea, but it seems pretty obvious that Travis Bickle was a sick man. However, Bickle finds no cure. The final scene of Bickel picking up Betsy in his cab some months after the shootout seems to indicate that he’s better, but the quick look into the mirror, looking for something just out of view, shows that he’s not. He’s still a ticking time bomb. He was going to assassinate somebody, whether a Senator or a pimp, and that isn’t out of him. He’s not cured of his problems because he blew some bad guys away and saved a young girl.
Sold these days as a modern thriller, the film is really a quiet character study of a man slowly descending into a form of madness through his own devices and lack of any real support structure. The parents he writes to might have seen the signs of his mental decay, but he never had them around, being able to paint a rosy, mysterious portrait of himself working in secret for the government. His status as a Vietnam veteran along with his living in a city not his own seems to imply a disconnect from his past, perhaps a look at a new America removed from the old in every way with no connection to anything of meaning anymore. The only clean symbol is of a politician and those around him, a man who speechifies disingenuously when even talking one on one to a cabbie. Everything else is horrible, and Bickle has nothing to cling onto anymore.
In terms of the film’s music, this marks a strong departure for Scorsese. He had sourced music in every single one of his features up to this point, but here he hired Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock‘s regular composer for decades, to score Taxi Driver completely. I can’t say with any certainty that Herrmann’s score knowingly recalls pieces from his career or if it’s just the sort of result one gets from a composer who’s been writing music for so long, but there are moments where it sounds like Herrmann’s score to Vertigo in particular is seeping through. The movie overall has a certain dreamlike quality to it, and these musical measures placed especially around Iris feel like a direct call to Madeleine in Vertigo, the idea of a dream-woman who does not actually exist. Bickle sees Iris as an innocent, but she’s a prostitute, having long lost herself to this dangerous and immoral life.
This is a movie that provides absolutely no answers to the issues it brings up. It is the portrait of a lost soul in a world that has also lost its soul, a painful cry for meaning in a society that seems to actively reject it. The violence at the end is a painful view of how people can break in such a place. That Bickle ends up praised for his violence is an ironic point that allows his madness to continue to hide in plain sight.
Taxi Driver is a fantastic movie that looks at the ugliness of the world clearly while painting a compelling portrait of a man driving himself to madness. It came from a place of pain in Paul Schrader that Martin Scorsese brought to compelling life on screen.