Taxi Driver (1976)
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybil Shepard.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Paul Schrader
Taxi Driver brought three of the most precious gems of cinema into prominence, namely Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese and the then 13-year-old Jodie Foster, who would go on to become one of the finest actresses ever.
This 1976 Martin Scorsese psychological thriller takes the viewer into a very different world, away from the candy floss romances, away from the opulent surroundings, and from the big dialogue mouthing mobsters or high school cheerleaders. It takes them into the mind of a frustrated and an unstable person, who is becoming dangerously psychotic due to the filth that he sees around him.
Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is the unlikely protagonist of the film, who is also the narrator in the movie. A discharged Vietnam vet with seemingly no professional or social skills, the 26-year-old (that’s the age he gives his employer) finds it almost impossible to adapt back into the society. He takes up a job to drive a taxi in New York at night for 12-hour shifts, both as a means to combat his insomnia and to give some direction to his empty and lonely life (“Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man”). His only activities, other than driving the taxi, are maintaining a diary (which is the narration of the film), watching pornographic films in seedy theatres, and writing letters to his parents, in which he blatantly lies about working with the secret service and being on important missions all the time.
He gets infatuated to a campaign volunteer Betsy (Cybil Shepard), and asks her out. He later takes her on a date, but being socially inept, takes her to one of his frequented seedy theatres. She leaves offended and breaks off all contact with him. His attempts to reconcile with her end in his humiliation at her office, which makes him further shun himself from society.
Meanwhile, instead of calming him down, driving the taxi at late nights makes his mental condition worse as, owing to the odd hours, he sees the worst elements of the society at work. Most of his fares during that time too are from the underbelly of the society (Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the scum off the back seat. Some nights, I clean off the blood). His mental instability makes him want to lash out at the decadence that he sees around him. He buys guns, and starts intense physical training, for someday, that he perceives he might have to fight the evil that he hates so much. One night, a twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) gets into his cab and pleads him to help her get away, only to have her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) pull her out, and throw a crumpled note on the backseat. Travis tracks Iris down by posing as her client, only to discover, to his dismay, that she is very content with her life as a prostitute, and has no intent of returning to her family. She says that she was stoned on the day when she tried to escape her pimp cum lover.
This breaks down any remaining sanity in Travis, and saving Iris from this wretched life becomes his sole obsession. He loses all sense, and even tries to make a ridiculous attempt on the life of the presidential candidate (from which he barely escapes), for whom his former love interest, Betsy is campaigning. Finally, he decides in the end to save Iris at any cost, paving way for a devastating climax.
Even after more than three decades of being made, this film remains the most harrowing portrayal of an unstable mind. Director Martin Scorsese pours his brilliance into the script in which the dialogues are far from flowery, yet hard hitting. The film is painfully real; not for one moment is the viewer given any false hopes that things are going to get better and something good will surely come out in the end. The viewer knows the end cannot be any better, and accompanies this unlikely protagonist on his march to the abyss. This film is rated highly by any director worth his salt, and remains an inspiration for any film student today, who wants to make it big. One of them had been Anurag Kashyap.
Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle is superlatively brilliant. A lot has been written about it, and all I can add is that it’s a privilege to watch him live this role. He makes you feel disgusted, afraid, sympathetic and sorry for Travis, all at the same time, because the viewer realizes that he too unknowingly wants to lash out at the evil all around him. Being a method actor, DeNiro drove a taxi in New York for a month for long hours in order to become Travis Bickle, instead of merely playing the role. The result is for all of us to see.
Jodie Foster’s portrayal of the twelve-year-old drug-addict hooker Iris is disturbingly awesome. The scene of her first meeting with Travis, where she tells him that he’s got only fifteen minutes to do his thing, is definitely not for someone raised on goody-goody cinema. The rest of the supporting cast is amazing as well.
The fact that Robert de Niro, Jodie Foster and Martin Scorsese did not win the Oscar for their performance, or that Taxi Driver didn’t win the best picture, again proves that awards don’t go to the best films, most of the times.
Rarely does a film come, which takes the viewers out of their comfort zone, and make them see cinema for what it is, a fulfilling art and science, instead of merely being a medium of entertainment. But when it does, you should not miss it. This timeless classic is applicable today, as much as it was in the 1970s, simply for the fact, as its caption states, that in every street in every city in the world, there is a nobody waiting to be a somebody.