Taxi Driver is the classic cinematic thunderstorm — Paul Schrader’s cool, sexually repressed formalism drifting into the humidity of Martin Scorsese’s lurid, urban expressionism. The result is a masterpiece unlike anything either man could accomplish on his own, and though they went on to collaborate a few more times, this first team-up gains from their relative youth and psychological instability. Schrader’s near-plotless script, and Scorsese’s hypnotized and hypnotizing tendency towards art-house flourishes like zooming into a bubbling glass of Alka-Seltzer, make this an almost entirely hermetic and interiorized experience, even though the sleaze and noise of pre-Giuliani New York City forever encroach on the portrait of the slowly dissolving Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). Every once in a while, we leave Travis’ viewpoint and spend time with co-workers at a political campaign, or with a pimp slow-dancing with his underage whore, and it’s like stepping into an air-conditioned office out of a sweltering July afternoon. The pimp (Harvey Keitel) and his whore (Jodie Foster) have a deeply diseased relationship, yet on the surface they carry more tenderness and humanity in their quiet scene together than anything Travis seems capable of. This is probably more a commentary on the degrading quality of the city than it is a romanticization of the pimp/whore dynamic: this is the closest thing to love we see in this universe.
Travis, of course, is both a dramatization of and a prediction of the curiously modern phenomenon of the psycho who yearns to smash through layers of dehumanizing anonymity. He’s not a serial killer — violence isn’t how he gets off, it’s a means to an end. After Travis shoots a burglar, his reaction isn’t triumph, it’s panic — “I don’t have a permit for this gun, I don’t know what to do.” What it does for him is to show him he can indeed kill someone close-up. (He was wounded in Vietnam, but we have no idea if he ever killed anyone there; many, perhaps most, soldiers in war never get any kills that they can confirm with their own two eyes.) His plan, I think, is to blast his way to the center of the city’s — the world’s — consciousness by assassinating the unctuous Senator Charles Palantine; when that fails, he turns his focus to rescuing Iris, the whore, having blown his chance to be with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the madonna. This is why I referred to Iris by the offensive title “whore” — Taxi Driver swims around in the toxic madonna/whore dichotomy. Schrader and Scorsese implicate themselves in this sickness, to the point where Scorsese puts in a perhaps too-gleeful cameo as a cuckold who delights in fantasizing about killing his wife. About the man his wife is sleeping with, all we learn is that he’s “a nigger.” That’s just insult to injury to a twisted Italian guy, who never talks about avenging his honor on the man, only on his wife.
Taxi Driver could easily be adapted as a stage play — much of it is two people talking in diners or on sidewalks. Its cinematic force comes from the abstracted inferno of the city and from certain tricks Scorsese plays, such as when Travis is delivering his “Here is a man who would not take it any more” monologue, and he stops and starts over again and the film does, too. The filmmaking, though fevered and impassioned, is also fluid and sometimes eerily becalmed. Bernard Herrman’s dissociative score (his last) alternates between mellow saxophone and shrill brass, and though Pauline Kael’s review singled out the music as one of the film’s few flaws, I don’t know what the movie would be like without it — it puts us in Travis’ embattled psyche as firmly as anything Scorsese does. The mellow sax, interestingly, moves from being non-diegetic to diegetic, emanating from the pimp’s turntable. So the music Travis has evidently been hearing in his head turns out to be the pimp’s theme song.
Multiple viewings give us an appreciation for rhyming scenes, such as Sport the pimp pulling Iris out of the cab, echoed later by Travis trying to grab onto Betsy as she disgustedly makes her way to a cab after he has taken her to a porn flick. (Later still, Travis is the one who gets pulled away, hilariously, by a terrified Albert Brooks. I’ve always seen Brooks and Shepherd as a weird oasis of West Coast sensibility in this definitive New York film.) Travis just barely functions, and isn’t nearly a natural-born killer — he has to rehearse again and again, including the famous, over-parodied “You talkin’ to me?” sequence, wherein he’s basically fantasizing himself responding to someone who said something to him. The one-sidedness of this “conversation” is an actor’s moment, maybe arising from improv, but also rooted in Travis’ reality as someone who increasingly can’t communicate with anyone unless hostility is involved. He’s always playing roles, though — putting on a Secret Service man as “Henry Krinkle”; putting on what’s probably his best crappy red sports coat to woo Betsy. In his dealings with Sport the pimp, Travis goes from being a “cowboy” to being a mohawked “Indian” (“Go back to your fuckin’ tribe,” Sport tells him).
De Niro’s Travis is frighteningly opaque; what makes it from his brain to his mouth is mostly verbal garbage, and De Niro doesn’t play Travis with any extra awareness of how blinkered Travis is. We don’t feel at any point, “Ah yes, De Niro the actor is obviously more healthy and intelligent than this.” He taps into something dark and cold. He also has a vicious, unfeeling smile he uses a few times that’s scarier than anything he does in more overtly violent roles (like, say, Cape Fear). It’s the kind of performance that makes one wonder how much of a number it did on De Niro’s head at the time, something like how some critics worried about how the Joker messed with Heath Ledger’s mind. Unlike Ledger’s externalized work, though, De Niro’s Travis is all implosive, tamped down, rotting away from within, inexorably leading to a fireworks display of homemade dum-dum bullets and arterial gush.
And what of the ending? Is it a dream? Travis’ dying fantasy? No and no. This interpretation robs the movie of its satirical sting — that Travis occupies a universe substantially more insane than he could ever be (as Kael put it, “It’s not that he’s cured but that the city is crazier than he is”), and that for his pains, and due to momentary ineptitude at bagging his first target, he becomes not an infamous assassin but a folk hero. He shifts his madness from the rich white man to the urban underclass, and is lionized for it. He is noticed; his anonymity is blown away, and Betsy even regards him with appraising interest. He’s sweated out his fever, but what happens a year or so down the line? The point is that Travis and others like him are still out there, waiting to explode, to carve themselves upon the general consciousness. Taxi Driver will probably be publicly chained to John Hinckley for the rest of time, but it’s really jacked into every nut who goes off, every shooting spree — not that it influences these psychos but that it understands them.