Monday, March 26, 2012

100 Movies - No. 87: Taxi Driver

87. Taxi Driver (1976)
Drama, Thriller, 113 minutes
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd

Travis Bickle (DeNiro) is a former Marine and a veteran of the Vietnam war. He frequently has trouble sleeping and is plagued by headaches. The pills he takes don't seem to help at all. Because he's likely to be awake all night anyway, Bickle takes a job driving a cab. He prefers the night shift.

Scorsese's version of New York is gritty and realistic. Most of the film is shot at night and we see just how crazy some of the people are. It's a crime-ridden world populated by junkies and prostitutes. Bickle hates how much scum exists in the city, and he's referring to the people more than the dirty streets.

Bickle is looking for something to brighten up his seedy existence and a woman catches his eye. Betsy (Shepherd) works in a local office for a senator who is hoping to become the next president. After pestering her for a while, she eventually agrees to go on a date with him. He talks to her in a very straightforward way. It's not clear whether he lacks intelligence, or if he doesn't see any point in hiding the truth about himself. His approach works and leads to one of the funniest scenes in the film when he takes her to see a movie.

Other things attract Bickle's attention. He's particularly drawn to Iris (Foster), who is a 12-year-old prostitute. As his frustration mounts at the disgusting state of the city, he begins to devise a plan to clean up one small part. An incident on the street gives him the idea of saving Iris from her situation and giving her the opportunity to escape from her pimp (Harvey Keitel).

It's interesting watching Bickle trying to escape his miserable existence. He figures out how to buy and use weapons and starts working out to strengthen his body. All the while, there's mounting tension, and we sense that Bickle is close to losing touch with reality completely.

The supporting cast is strong, with Shepherd, Foster and Keitel all playing their parts well. You'll also see Peter Boyle and Albert Brooks. One of the most surprising scenes involves a cameo from Scorsese. His character might even be the catalyst for the change which eventually occurs in Bickle.

I have to mention Scorsese's decision to shoot most of the scenes at night. It was an inspired choice and adds so much atmosphere to the film. Bernard Herrmann's saxophone-heavy score is also an important part of the mix and helps helps transport us into Bickle's troubled world.

De Niro has produced some incredible performances over the past 40 years and Travis Bickle is probably my favorite De Niro character. There's so much going on beneath the surface and De Niro portrays much of it with his body language.

The meaning of the conclusion is open to debate, but if you take it purely at face value, it's quite uplifting.

If you like Taxi Driver:

One film definitely worth watching if you enjoy seeing how people can lose touch with reality is Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas.

Fight Club is perhaps a more extreme view of mental illness, but some of the settings feel similar to those in Taxi Driver. It has that same gritty quality.

Scorsese has made so many wonderful films about a world hidden just beneath the surface. The best examples are probably Casino and Goodfellas and De Niro stars in both. For a more recent example, consider The Departed, for which Scorsese was awarded his only Oscar to date.

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  1. Great review. It would be surprising for you not to include this. It seems to be in every list out there. De Niro is, as always, great.

  2. It does seem to be a popular choice. I don't love everything that Scorsese and De Niro have produced together, but Taxi Driver has such a distinct feel to it. Bickle's choices really interest me and the tension keeps building. Great casting.