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Let’s Talk Taxi Driver: A social outcast (Robert DeNiro) watches the crowd like a voyeur, never participating although he wants to. He’s disgusted by the unethical behaviour of the masses. Cast under a spell, he feel’s chosen to defend the city as a vigilante.
Travis Bickle (DeNiro) is one of the most layered and philosophical anti-heroes of cinematic history. Part edgy crime film, part esoteric deconstruction, Taxi Driver blends story with art in one of the purest cinematic experiences of the 70s. Although early in their long and illustrious careers, this film showcases DeNiro’s best performance and the best direction by Scorese.
The most famous line of Taxi Driver is “You talkin’ to me?” DeNiro delivers this iconic dialogue while alone in his apartment talking to his own reflection. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert said the “Well, I’m the only one here” portion echoes the theme of loneliness, which permeates the celluloid. With this mirror Moment, Travis has created a social situation where he is in total control. He could have said anything, but he chooses to react aggressively, as if the imaginary person he’s talking with is against him. He thinks of himself as the hero standing up for justice. However, in reality (like in society), there is no conflict. In effect, Travis becomes his own invisible antagonist, right through to the bloody finger at his temple for the end.
THAT MOMENT IN Taxi Driver: “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.”
“God’s lonely man” comes from the title of an essay by American writer Thomas Wolfe. While Wolfe meant that loneliness was something we all had in common, Travis thought he was special and different for a reason. He’s spurred on by misunderstanding a quote, much like another social outcast / anti-hero, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.Despite being surrounded by masses of people in a busy New York, Travis feels alone. He wants to participate in society and be like everyone else. Unfortunately, Travis is unlike “them”. He doesn’t fit in.Another haunting quote is how he views the purpose of life: “I believe that someone should become a person like other people.” Digging deeper allows for the viewer to have their own personal interpretation on Travis’ mindset. Although he tries a few times to interact, he reads all the social cues wrong, like taking a date to a movie – even when the films he watches are all in porno theaters.
That Moment comes from the diary narration, which is sprinkled throughout. These sequences force us to see the world through Travis’ eyes. Scorsese literally places us inside his world, keeping the camera inside our “hero’s” taxi for important monologues. A real thematic highlight is when we look through Travis’ windshield. Rain obscures our view. The wipers activate to clean away the rain, but the camera remains unfocused. Scorsese uses a simple technique to demonstrate a different mindset, and make us consider another point of view.
Spurred by this delusion of being a chosen one, Travis turns vigilante; disgusted by his environment and willing to risk his life to make the wrong things right. That Moment is more internal and reflective, like most of Taxi Driver. The best films invite us to participate. Scorsese’s masterpiece shares this elite company. The “God’s Lonely Man” quote offers (perhaps) the most insight into this fractured mind.
Cinema Remembered: Unfortunately, the delusional vigilante who feels chosen is nothing new. However, it is fascinating subject matter. For some reason, certain lonely people turn towards violence as a form of expression when no other method seems available. Sometimes these individuals believe they are a saviour. Travis Bickle’s story reflects reality with school shooting tragedies committed by social outcasts.
A lot of the themes are not clear upon first viewing, or even after multiple. Because of how challenging Taxi Driver is, it is also much more rewarding, especially upon each new screening. Another sequence that encompasses the theme of loneliness reflected in That Moment is when Travis watches TV in his apartment, after he shoots a Black man who was robbing a store. American Bandstand is on, showing a happy Black couple. The camera zooms into the slow dancing couples. Then the camera finds a lone pair of shoes… all by themselves. This is Travis. Alone. Invisible. Wanting to dance.
While Taxi Driver alienates a lot of the audience, it’s proud to. This isn’t a story for everyone. The characters are not nice. It’s not easy to root for anyone. However, there is hope. Depending on how you interpret the ending, all is not lost (the television is another clue there). DeNiro captivates you enough to want to participate. Scorsese uses every tool in the filmmaker’s belt. Both were still young and hungry, and interested in exploring the method of the art.
Paul Schrader wrote a brilliant script that captures a specific time and place… and state of mind. The American dream is easy to shatter, and easy to draw blood when you pick up the broken pieces. Taxi Driver doesn’t try to please the masses. It doesn’t try and appeal to anyone.
This influential film tells its own story focused on an overall theme rather than a plot based on do this by this time and get to point A before plot-point B happens. Instead, we experience a progression of destructive thought, and can’t look away. As a rare treat for the medium, we want to know more about the main character. We actually want to know what Travis is thinking… even after he tells us with a narration.
Taxi Driver is the gift that keeps on giving. You can watch this essential film every few years and get a new understanding. First time viewers who have been warned by others, toss that advice aside. Take a risk. This isn’t for everyone, but it might be for you.
Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd
Next Week on Cinema Remembered: What Prometheus was really about (?) – one nerd’s theory.