Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver is such a good film. I wish I could tell you why it's a good film, but frankly, I don't know what it is that makes it so good. Is it Paul Schrader's deeply personal script? Martin Scorsese's inspired directing? The acting talent of a young and fresh Robert De Niro? Or the rest of the talented cast, including Jodie Foster's impressive and iconic performance as a 12 year old hooker? Is it because the characters are so real, and the dialogue so honest? And why is the gritty climax still so haunting, even after years of overexposure to ultraviolence in movies? I suspect it's a combination of many elements, where everything just seemed to go right. But it has to count for something that the primary filmmakers believed in this project, and had a real passion for it. Rather than a blockbuster engineered for superficial enjoyment, Taxi Driver is a serious film that makes you think and feel, and that is so much more rewarding.


Ex-Marine Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is having some trouble adapting to modern life in the city. He has few prospects, doesn't relate well to people, and spends his nights awake, wandering disinterestedly between porno theaters. So he decides to become a taxi driver, working the night shift. This puts him in contact with all the scum that walks the street at night - prostitutes, junkies, criminals of all stripes - and it quickly begins to wear on him. Then he meets an angel, in the form of the ravishing beauty Betsy (Cybill Shepherd, looking absolutely scrumptious), who works on the campaign for a hopeful future presidential candidate. Travis doesn't really follow politics, but he goes out on a limb and asks Betsy out on a date. She seems intrigued by his unusual demeanor, and decides to take a risk on him. But when Travis absentmindedly takes her to a porno theater on their second date (not even seeming to realize his faux pas), that's the end of it.

Travis is left to wallow in his loneliness, as his increasing misanthropy pushes him further from sanity. In a misdirected desire to bring some meaning to his life, he begins a serious exercise regimen, and arms himself to the teeth with illegal firearms. Cleaning the scum off the streets of New York is never far from his mind, but he lacks a plan. Then he runs into Iris (Jodie Foster, a major player despite her minor status), a 12-year-old prostitute selling her body on the street. As an inverted parallel of his introduction of Betsy to the sleazy underground of the city, he hatches a plan to rescue Iris from her trashy lifestyle - but she seems less than enthusiastic about being dragged back to the parents she ran away from. Travis intends to make a name for himself somehow though, and he has to take his frustration with life out on someone - and his opinion seems to be that whatever he decides on, his own survival isn't a requirement.


If you've seen the film, then you know all about the brutal climax, in which Travis - refashioned with an intimidating mohawk - shoots Iris' pimp, guns down her mafioso client in the middle of a job, and then splatters her treasurer's brains all over the wall as she sits nearby on the couch cowering in fear. Suicide is ruled out when Travis finds his guns have run dry, so he sits and waits for the authorities to arrive and take over. Iris is presumably scared straight (as opposed to just being scared?), and Travis is lauded as a hero in the newspapers, for ridding the streets of a few more criminals - gangsters and traffickers in the human flesh trade. Iris' parents treat him like a saint for "saving" their daughter from a life of sin and vice, and he even seems to receive forgiveness from Betsy, whose opinion of him has improved. Happy ending, right?

Not quite. What of the fact that Travis Bickle is a disturbed man, who just murdered three people in cold blood (never mind that they were criminals), without so much as a slap on the wrist - in fact, he's been commended for his actions! - and might do it again, maybe to less deserving victims next time? Should we really forgive him his violent and antisocial outburst just because the targets of his frustration were persons involved in prostitution, specifically of underage girls? We have the justice system to deal with criminals - not vigilantes. Who is he to judge a person's guilt, and then decide their punishment? And yet, throughout the film, he is a largely sympathetic character, and because we have a hard time relating to junkies and prostitutes, we don't seem to want to count their lives very highly (and we consider Iris to be better off at home, even if she wouldn't agree). I think that may contribute to the sense of horror that we feel in that climax, that we have sympathized (and perhaps continue to do so) with someone who is capable of doing something so gruesome - and that despite viewing the victims as lowlifes, we see the violence perpetrated against them in a stark, unyielding light.

"You looking for some action?"

And that is another part of the brilliance of this film. Though we sympathize with Travis, every person that gets in his way is a fully-fledged character with desires and motivations of their own. They're real people, not just obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, without any moral complexity. Even Iris' character is based on a real life teenage prostitute (in fact, she's in the movie - she's the girl that Iris hangs out with on the streets). It would be so easy to make Iris the caricature of a lost girl dragged against her will into the lurid world of urban prostitution - and then, there would be no question that what Travis does is right. But instead, she actually defends her lifestyle - rather convincingly if you ask me (no, Travis, I'm afraid you're the one who's square). No, it's not glamorous, but it's not as sensationally evil as the headlines (and our imaginations) are inclined to make it, either. And that makes it harder for us to condone Travis' actions in the end. Because even though we might relate to his good intentions - rescuing a young girl off the streets of New York, and cleaning those streets of criminals and thugs - we realize that in the end Travis' self-serving saintly aspirations result in the gruesome murder of at least three people, and a likely traumatic scarring for the girl he intended to save. This is not the work of a divine avenger, but of a troubled and confused psychopath!

If this film has a flaw, it's that it supports the stereotype of the antisocial loner who is just a ticking time bomb. But it's a testament to the quality of the film that I still like it very much despite this - as well as the moral stance our protagonist takes against those who choose to live in sin and vice (which are often confused with crime - partly because many vices are wrongly classified as crimes). Although, I derive great satisfaction from the fact that our supposed representative of a "moral guardian" is a racist, porn-watching, black market gun-toting murderer. His victims may have been lowlifes, but what makes Travis so high and mighty? Hypocrisy kinda puts a damper on a man's virtue of integrity. This is a complex story about complex characters, so to make broad generalizations about people from it is a grave misstep. Critics may argue that movies like it inspires (if not also glorifies) violence, but as screenwriter Paul Schrader confirms, it's a study of a character - a very real character - who will exist regardless of whether or not we shine the light on him. And studying him may yet yield some positive results, if nothing else, to get to know ourselves better, and identify the commonalities that run at the base of the human condition.

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