Sunday, September 26, 2021

Taxi Driver / **** (1976)

Like the most notable of cynical movie narrators, Travis Bickle arrives in “Taxi Driver” less an observer and more a force of nature nearing the breaking point of his stability. What separates him from a breed of other loners eager to critique the system is how far he is willing to go in dismantling it. This is not a man who gazes directly at the cultural construct of 1970s New York with pragmatism, and when he becomes driven to shake up its foundation, each choice plays like a step further away from a tangible moral center. In many instances that can be amusing to watch, at least when the results are uncomfortable rather than dangerous. Consider his interaction with women: early on he attempts to earn the interest of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a political volunteer for an aspiring presidential candidate. At first she is just as amused by his blunt worldview as we are, until their first date ends up in a seedy theater showing porno. Now contrast that to how he approaches Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute whose eyes seem to plead for him to save her – admirable, perhaps, if you were to just passively observe the behavior. But while his is a pattern that is the staple of many movie characters whose madness walks in the guise of noble intentions, rarely are they this frontal, or so pointed in arriving at the core of the crumbling psyche.

Bickle remains one the most fascinating of all antiheroes in American cinema, even in this sardonic age of Patrick Batemans, Lester Burnhams, Tyler Durdens and William Fosters, when Hollywood has made relentless use of the corrupt male paradigm. He is also one of the few we have reservations in admitting a kinship with, a fact that is influenced by a series of decisions he makes that go far beyond acceptable in the violent third act. In 2002, back when I first saw the movie in film school, it was less difficult to explain the admiration; movie buffs were still content with the figurative explanations of character motives instead of being appalled by their literal outcomes. We recognized the reasons for bad behavior. But in this climate of hyper-awareness there becomes a need, an obligation, to attach those assertions with explanatory footnotes. The narrator in Scorsese’s movie is a product of untold experiences in the shadow of Vietnam, and the unrestrained torment that came with city life when back alleys were synonymous with filth and sleaze and streetlights gave clarity to a grotesque underbelly. His are eyes that move to the rhythms entirely out of his control. A monster lurks below the surface, but it is a shell that we understand, relate to, and empathize with.

While these undercurrents run thick in many of Scorsese’s early pictures, “Taxi Driver” dares to elevate the scathing observer into the heart of the common moviegoer. More than just indicative of the evolving values of a young Hollywood auteur, they became the pointed philosophies of Paul Schrader, a then-novice screenwriter who is more often attributed to the movie’s success than most scribes had been (at least up to that point). Schrader, who would transition to directing and go on to make “American Gigolo,” “Affliction” and the recent “First Reformed,” was in many ways announcing his nuanced arrival in the volatile theater of human pain, showing us the complete and unfiltered worldview of declining social norms in the diseased heart of Americana. When we see his later films, what we are experiencing is evolved variations of the same underlying thread that illuminates Bickle, and all the volcanic anger that is destined to build with it.

The movie is deliberately cagey with how he arrived there. The early scenes, containing expository exchanges with an interviewer at the New York taxi service, reveal that he was “honorably discharged” from the marines in 1973. The questions are brief and succinct: we also learn he is a raging insomniac and seeks long overnight shifts, when the hustle and bustle of New York has died down and lowly degenerates come out to stalk the shadows. Those first nights show him grinding to that routine ad nauseum: he picks up drunkards and low-lives, watches passively on in the rear-view mirror while they have sex or do drugs in his backseat, and returns the cab to the docks the next morning after cleaning away the filth they have left behind. His commonality with them is not an enthusiasm or an endorsement, of course; they are simply easier to disappear among, and the silence allows him to build on his caustic hatred, usually through rambling internal monologues. When he refers to himself as “god’s lonely man,” there is a chord of film noir in his tone. But he is not content to hide or even nurse his wounds in private, a key distinction that also informs what was to come of neo-noir, where the protagonists are usually acting out their struggles instead of festering in them.

Occasionally, the taxi’s backseat guests are more than just superfluous distractions. One of the watersheds of his eventual fate appears in the form of a disgruntled husband (played in cameo by Scorsese himself), who instructs Bickle to park near a residential street and sit there with him (“did I tell you to stop the meter?!”). His voice demands that he look up at the corner window, where he spots the silhouette of a woman smoking. That is his passenger’s wife, but the room is not of his house – it belongs to another, and the man outlines how he is going to use a 47 magnum on each of her orifices as revenge for cheating on him. The grotesque and painstaking description ought to horrify Bickle in the same way it inspires dread in the audience, but something about his face implies there may be commonality in the decision. This is a man who is fighting back, against someone who has wronged him. It is a cycle that will inform the actions that are to come in the taxi man’s own psychological descent.

Shortly thereafter, Travis arrives at a seedy hotel room to purchase a gun at the suggestion of a co-worker (a “means of protection” is the obligatory excuse). When he arrives to assess his choices from the dealer, he purchases the entire lot. Between more strange encounters with low-lives and serendipitous circumstances that led him to the unlikely meeting with young Iris, he spends long and tedious hours rigging an elaborate system of wires and leather straps to conceal as many of his guns as possible under an overcoat, usually while news bulletins about the prospective presidential candidate are playing on a nearby television. Roleplay is the tool that allows him to perfect the art of a quick draw, and practice constitutes a key verbalization: the famous scene when Bickle pretends he is being accosted by an invisible person and announces to the camera, “Are you talking to me?”

In the long list of alienated Vietnam veterans in the movies, someone seems to always be talking from within. A few manifest it into self-loathing, while others attack every detail in their line of vision. Bickle allows it to rot the core of his soul under a facade of false courtesy and generic platitudes. The private gunplay, in many respects, is the coping mechanism that will allow him to break away from the routine he dwells in, and Iris’ arrival is the catalyst that will propel him beyond the boundaries of law and order. There are two scenes that flawlessly emphasize this inevitability, one blatant and the other incidental. The more obvious cue comes when Bickle meets Iris for the second time in a motel room. She fails to remember who he is, even though his recollection is vivid: they met days earlier in a chance encounter in his cab, when she attempted to flee from her domineering pimp (Harvey Keitel) before he whisked her away. Now she is less concerned with escaping the life she has chosen, but is that all an elaborate lie? Is she really wanting to stay, or is she too afraid to say, especially to a man she believes may just become unhinged for the sake of saving her? His dialogue is sharp, damning and somehow encouraging. But she knows exactly what it all must mean: if she takes his help, the only means to that end may involve the shedding of blood.

The other scene, a bridge between Bickle’s failed interaction with Betsy and his eventual pursuit of Iris, is the moment where all the foreshadowing culminates. Unbeknownst to him for the first minutes of his fare, Travis has picked up both Charles Palantine, the prospective presidential candidate, and his assistant, after they have failed to secure a limousine for a fundraising event. When the realization dawns on him who exactly the man is, he engages as an enthusiastic fan, showering him with praise as his candidacy seeks to topple the country’s incumbent in the upcoming election. Palantine is flattered but taken aback after asking his driver about what he feels should be done about crime in the city. The ensuing monologue is a biting, scathing reveal of the monster at the wheel, and to this day I am marveled by how subtle both Leonard Harris and De Niro are in handling the chilling awkwardness of the exchange. Palantine comes to know this man as a ticking time bomb without any drastic change of expression, and Bickle is so chilly and nonchalant about his delivery, as if it is the root of a philosophy that is more normal than horrific.

Performances elevate this material because they refuse to operate by the conventional emotional cues of crime thrillers. Foster was a newcomer to hard-boiled drama when she took on the role of a teenage prostitute, having been typecast consistently as a sarcastic fast talker in a handful of Disney comedies, but her brand of bemused distance provides the movie with great moral complexity; we can never be sure if Iris is really struggling inside, or is wearing a mask to keep those around her guessing about her choices. Also effective is Cybil Shepherd as Betsy, the volunteer who will continue to have curious encounters with Bickle as the movie progresses, and Albert Brooks as her protective friend is caustic and observant without being the scene-chewer we associate him with in later roles. De Niro was not new to film or even Scorsese’s brand prior to the movie, but his conviction as Bickle allows his rising star to explode, before eventually being elevated to transcendence in “Raging Bull” just two years later. When one stands back to assess the pitch they bring to the material, one finds a menagerie of fresh and eager faces buying into a new wisdom emerging from Scorsese’s youthful doctrine, which suggested the more fascinating people were the ones who willingly played in the back alleys of the big cities.

The music is just as essential as the dialogue. Bernard Herrmann was in his final years when he agreed to write the music for “Taxi Driver,” having made some of the most famous scores to ever be heard in the golden age (the single sharp chord of the shower scene in “Psycho” may be his most lauded), but his approach here is an alluring if unusual mix of sparse drum riffs and decadent brass instruments that seem inspired by film noir. Listening to them again as the images unfold on screen, I began to sense the genius of the pattern: the more romantic horns play up the illusion of a functioning metropolis, while the minimalist pieces point to the internal solitude of its most dangerous wanderer. For many of Scorsese’s early films, there is always a duality between what he captures and what he perceives: the city itself is an object of beauty burdened by the sins and transgressions of those who occupy it. Herrmann’s music gives the movie a sense of that unspoken purpose, moving between the haunting quiet and the ambitious flourishes in the same way Bickle himself moves between dark alleys and public spectacles on his way towards collapse.

When that moment comes, it does so in spectacular violence that still inspires shock to this day – Bickle enters the motel where Iris works, and lays waste to every bystander (including her pimp) in an elaborate shootout that ends with him barely clinging to life as the cops arrive. Yet it is the sequence that follows that probably inspires the most debate. After the entire encounter has concluded, Travis awakes to letters from Iris’ parents, thanking him for saving their girl, and he returns to his taxi as a hero, where Betsy is once again drawn to his backseat. At the time, the scene was jarring enough against the backdrop of the rest of the film to inspire running discussions between bewildered viewers, who were either of the opinion that the moment was literal, or simply a fantasy. For either explanation to work, that requires Bickle to survive the ordeal he has been through – an unlikely circumstance in a movie this grim. So how do we account for the happy, gleeful moment? I think the explanation points to Scorsese’s brief intrigue of dream logic. The end of one’s life, we are told, involves flashes back to happier memories before death comes for the chosen, but in the case of a traumatized Vietnam vet who dwells in the muck of the gutters, what possible good memories are there to recall? No, it would be easier for him to picture himself as the brave hero at the end of his bout with violence, instead of as a victim of a shocking outburst. In those final moments, he is relishing what he believes might have come had he survived his ordeal, and the movie ends as it begins: with those slow, hypnotic glimpses beyond the windshield of a city hiding behind the glare of streetlights. The great mystery of the movie is how it deals so cleverly with the uncertain subconscious of its characters, and yet always seems to be telling us the absolute truth in every frame.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Crime (US); 1976; Rated R; Running Time: 114 Minutes

Robert De Niro: Travis Bickle
Jodie Foster: Iris
Cybill Shepherd: Betsy
Albert Brooks: Tom
Harvey Keitel: Sport
Peter Boyle: Wizard

Produced by
Phillip M. Goldfarb, Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips; Directed by Martin Scorsese; Written by Paul Schrader

No comments: