Watching Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver, I force myself to remember another film: Mark Romanek‘s feature debut One Hour Photo. It doesn’t take a lot of prodding as there is a fair amount of similarities. Both deal with loners, characters who struggle to connect with the people around them. Both movies’ protagonists see injustices being committed and decide to do something about them. One crucial difference is how towards the end of One Hour Photo, we’re given a possible explanation for the Robin Williams lead character’s actions and behavior. It doesn’t work. It feels tacked on and unnecessary, and leaves a bit of a sour taste as it closes off an otherwise skillfully made psychological thriller.
I force myself to remember this because Taxi Driver’s protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is so fascinating and enigmatic, and we’re never told what has made him the way he is. Curiosity gnaws on me, yet I realize that I’m probably better off not knowing. The guessing is part of the fun.
Who is Travis Bickle? He’s lonely, but he doesn’t like it that way. He’s socially awkward. He’s an insomniac. He takes a night time job as a taxi driver in New York City. He seems uncomfortable and distracted when talking to his colleagues. He knows squat about politics, pop culture or anything at all. He’s a former Marine, or so he claims. He keeps a journal, providing us with clues to his psyche in voice-over narration.
The first thing we see in Taxi Driver is smoke billowing up from a manhole cover, intercut with close-ups of Travis’ eyes. Is Scorsese saying that Travis’ vision is obscured, or that he see clearly through the fog enveloping him and the city? We can be certain that he sees something, at least. Or we might call it something, but to him it’s everything.
“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”
One temporary shining light in his life is Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a woman whom he sees as angelic and beautiful. She works with the presidential campaign of Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris), whose platform Travis knows nothing about but is willing to put up with just to spend time with Betsy. But they’re incompatible, despite what he says about there being a connection between them. Travis isn’t compatible with anybody. On their first night out, he takes her to a porn theater. It’s the kind of movies he likes seeing, so why wouldn’t she? The result is predictable.
When he’s rejected by her, Travis becomes more destructive. He’s sick of the scum of the city that comes out at night and wishes something to be done about it. But what can he do? He’s just “God’s lonely man”. His mounting feelings of impotence are only heightened when he can’t even save child prostitute Iris (a 13 year-old Jodie Foster) from her rough life under a small-time pimp (Harvey Keitel). He buys a small arsenal of guns (leading to the iconic “You talkin’ to me” scene), but odds are even he doesn’t know what he’s planning to use them for at the time. He desperately seeks a purpose, some way to do good, but he’s unable to find the right outlet. Even when he performs a random act of kindness by preventing a robbery, it doesn’t even seem to register on him.
This much we do know or can reasonably deduct about Travis Bickle, but so many questions remain. Was he really a marine? Did something happen to him during his service? What are the pills he takes, only to then stop? Why does he lie in letters to his parents about having a secret government job? And just what is going through his mind as he sits in his apartment, watching people dance and have fun on TV, his head leaning against the barrel of his .44 Magnum?
Oh, right, this is supposed to be a review. Well, Taxi Driver is a great movie, of course. It’s not for everyone, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you probably should. It’s beautifully shot, Bernard Herrman‘s score is tremendous and the atmosphere is rich at all times. And yeah, Robert De Niro hits all the right notes and then some in his performance. If you wonder why I’m “only” giving it a 4/5, it’s because I don’t like it enough to give it the full monty. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that the film isn’t superb, because it is.
“All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that one should become a person like other people.”
Now, excuse me as I go ponder Travis some more. Not having all the answers can indeed be a good thing.
And with that, my rewatching project comes to an end. Thanks go out to everyone who voted on what movies I should see (I’ll rewatch them all eventually, even if I don’t write reviews of them).