I watched the classic 1976 film Taxi Driver the other night and was interested in my reaction. It depressed me. Over the years, I’ve seen it around 10 times. This is not unusual, as several films from the Orson Welles, John Ford or Sam Peckinpah canon I’ve viewed an equal number of times. I just don’t remember being depressed after watching this before.
Martin Scorsese directed this open-sore of a film and of his many classic works, this is the one I return to most often with morbid fascination. Taxi Driver is such a raw, visceral experience that after viewing its nightmarish terrain one must decompress. It’s a bold, stomach-punch one hates or loves.
Seedy does not begin to describe the horror of Taxi Driver, which details a world of pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts and a loner psycho brilliantly portrayed by Robert De Niro. This film established some of the great talents in motion picture history including De Niro, Scorsese, Albert Brooks and Jodie Foster. Taxi Driver also came close to getting President Ronald Reagan assassinated.
Most people know the story of John Hinckley, an unstable loner who viewed Taxi Driver repeatedly. He began to stalk Foster and eventually tried to assassinate Reagan in a manner similar to the film’s Travis Bickle (who attempts to assassinate candidate Charles Palantine). It’s such an ugly story, echoing across the American landscape with the clarity of a snub-nosed revolver. A skate/punk band named themselves Jodie Foster’s Army (changed to JFA to avoid lawsuits) in a bizarre tribute to the incident.
I wonder about disturbing epics like Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and Natural Born Killers. Whenever I visit the video store, I notice these films are usually checked out, empty boxes leaning against the shelf. Who’s watching these films, and why so often? Granted, a hypocritical question, since I have viewed Taxi Driver multiple times. The films share a common thread in that they have likable actors (De Niro, Malcolm McDowell, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Harrelson) playing despicable men prone to violent rages. Alienated one and all, these characters have become anti-heroes for a world severely lacking in heroes. Gary Cooper they are not.
Taxi Driver has been analyzed obsessively. And it should be. There are so many ways to view the film, with multiple levels serving as proof to its complicated brilliance. Urban alienation, cultural emptiness, veiled racism, Watergate analogy and Oswald repression are just a few of the metaphorical doors one can open in this nightmare. The racism specter, floating just beneath the surface, is most disturbing of all.
The racist stance in Taxi Driver is so obvious the film could not have been made today. In a cameo by Scorsese, he plays an obsessed stalker spying on his wife. We see her silhouette through a window and assume it’s the right person. Scorsese, sitting in the back seat of Bickle’s cab, claims his wife is having an affair with a “nigger.” Scorsese then goes into a long, unforgettable monologue where he discusses inserting a gun into his wife and pulling the trigger. It’s difficult to listen to this scene, if only because of the blatant racist and sexist tones.
Bickle later stumbles into a convenience store robbery, shooting the thief (a black man). The store owner then viciously beats the dying black man with a crow bar. Additional scenes show Bickle sitting in porno theaters, the only Caucasian man surrounded by black men and women. I think these scenes have been created to further emphasize Bickle’s alienation and isolation. But it also implies the only customers in New York going to porno films are black people.
The racism specter is further enhanced by the fact Paul Schrader’s original screenplay had the three main villains (if there truly are heroes or villains in Taxi Driver) written as black men. Scorsese wisely changed the characters to Caucasian men. Racism exists within a world of frustration and hate – and that is certainly the world of Taxi Driver. I’m just not sure I care to see this hate as unpleasantly as I do here.
De Niro’s Bickle is a Vietnam veteran suffering from insomnia. He takes a job as a cab driver to work nights, driving through the most dangerous New York neighborhoods for fares. He becomes infatuated with a beautiful woman (Cybill Shepherd) who works at the campaign office of Palantine. Bickle takes the woman to a porno theater on their first date, and she dumps him immediately. To no one’s surprise, Bickle soon begins to stalk her. He purchases a deadly arsenal of hand guns and intensely works out in preparation for his assassination of Palantine (and most likely the woman too). Along the way, Bickle stumbles across a 12-year old prostitute (Foster) whom he befriends. His attempted assassination fails and he drives over to the prostitute’s home and kills her pimp (Harvey Keitel), landlord and an unlucky gangster. Taxi Driver unbelievably ends with the prostitute having been returned to her parents and Bickle becoming an inner-city folk hero. Shepherd’s character tries to make a date with Bickle, but he’s now at peace with the inferno around him and drives on disinterested.
This ending has been debated for years. It is so controversial that when the film first ran on television, stations posted warnings stating they did not consider Bickle a hero. They’re right. Bickle’s a whacked-out cultural icon, granted, but he’s no hero. He wants to be a hero, and perhaps the final scene is Bickle at the moment of death dreaming of a happy ending. He’s essentially saved the day and rescued a damsel in distress. Bickle was seriously wounded after the shootout, having been shot in the neck. So it could have been a dream sequence, though Scorsese purposefully made it too vague to be entirely sure.
It’s clear Bickle wishes to be a cowboy hero in Taxi Driver, as seen by the boots he wears and the guns he straps on like an inner-city John Wayne. His famously improvised “You talkin’ to me?” speech is in fact a line of dialog lifted from the classic 1953 western Shane. And the final showdown has Bickle taking on three men (outnumbered a la Cooper in High Noon) in a bloody, ferocious battle that to this day is one of the most violent scenes in history.
Bickle, adorned in Mohawk and Army jacket, fires at random. He shoots off a man’s hand, is shot in the neck, stumbles upon the stairs, slips on blood and falls to the floor. The scene is a grotesque nightmare, the stock purposely faded so the blood would be dulled enough for the film to avoid an X rating. At one point, as Bickle falls to the blood-splattered tile like a stiff mannequin, Scorsese increases the speed of the film for several frames, creating a surreal, dream-like aura. It’s both brilliant and profoundly disturbing. The violence is so random and sloppy one gets the feeling they are viewing an actual crime scene. There is no music, only the jagged noises of constant screaming and guns blasting within closed-in spaces. While we love the balletic violence of the final shootout in The Wild Bunch, we turn away from the gore in Taxi Driver. It’s as repellant as reality.
Scorsese’s masterpiece is not intended for the young or emotionally disturbed. Bickle is not a hero in a film populated by an army of non-heroes. Still, viewers just might get confused. I know Bickle is crazy, but I feel sorry for him. At times, I even identify with him. And that depresses me.