There’s movies, and then there’s CINEMA. Taxi Driver is CINEMA. It’s literature. If you can make a movie about the legacy of the movie that inspired it, that’s literature. You can write a whole book on it. Many film students have written their master’s thesis on it. You can easily boil Taxi Driver down into one concise summary that makes for a perfect 10th grade English essay thesis: it’s the study of a lonely man who doesn’t fit into society. And of course it’s more than that. It’s disturbing. It’s mostly unpleasant. It’s not something you’d watch with your grandma, unless your grandma is into watching movies where Robert DeNiro grumbles about having to wipe semen off the backseat of a car every night. It’s not a movie you watch when you’re already having a rough time and want to be reminded of the existence of good in the world. Even the uplifting parts are pretty damn grim.
The gritty 70s Scorsese canon is not really my film comfort zone. Given a choice, I’m happiest watching something where people are prone to burst into song and/or wave around swords while delivering top-notch smarm. Thing is, I also dislike having a cultural blind spot when it comes to movies that seemingly everyone and their dog has already seen. I don’t dislike it enough to insist that I drop everything to watch, say, Platoon immediately, but it’s a little bit of a gnaw. So why Taxi Driver in particular? I can’t really say. It’s not a movie that anyone has plunked me down in front of and insisted that I watch, and it’s rarely been within arm’s reach with regards to streaming availability. It’s been hovering around in the recent cultural atmosphere for a little while, being a point of discussion for people who want to talk about Joker, and people who want to talk about the treatment of toxic masculinity on film, but I tend to swat these things away from me if I’m not up to spending my energy on them. But, Netflix recently added it, so – why not. Time to check off A Movie That Everyone Else But Me Has Seen.
This essay is going to be more of an embellished string of responses than any attempt to come up with some brilliant new insight, which is impossible. It’s like trying to write a hot take about Modern Times – someone already wrote that, decades ago. Whatever I’ve observed as brilliant or contrived has already been observed, confirmed and discussed at a molecular level by hoards of film school students. I’ve also made a point to not read a single drop of Taxi Driver commentary or analysis between watching and putting down my review, so that my response can remain my own. And it’s really really hard to do that, so here I am, a few hours after having watched it, hoping to get the writing done so that I can go read someone else’s experiences and luxuriate in what I’m sure is a rich bath of film nerd discussion.
So, what did the legacy of this movie imprint on me before I sat down to watch it? How would I describe what I was expecting, due to the influence of pop culture? Well, I thought it was about a mentally disturbed man who drives a taxi for a living and he stalks and/or kills people. I then read Netflix’s description: “Enraged by New York’s moral rot and urban decay, an unhinged cab driver goes mad, plotting an assassination and saving a teen sex worker.” Ok. The sex worker angle was new to me. I also thought that Travis was going to be more of a serial killer than what he turned out to be, which was what the media would label today as a gunman or a shooter
So, what of Travis Bickle? He’s a misfit. Not for lack of trying to find something to belong to, as he becomes a taxi driver because he gets to have short and mostly meaningless interactions with a lot of people. He doesn’t sit in his shitty apartment and stare at the walls all day, although he has very questionable eating habits that resemble that of an alcoholic six year old. He’s lonely, but he isn’t a shut-in. He gets out, even if “out” means a weekly visit to a gross gross GROSS porno theater. He joins a campaign office because he has a crush on a lady who works there. He has a military background, and since he was discharged three years before the events of the film you can infer that he’s been thrown out of a place that he considered his home and his purpose and has been uneasily drifting around ever since. Vietnam isn’t mentioned directly, I don’t think, but audiences in 1976 would likely fill in the blanks there and presume that he had been directly involved in conflict. Did the war break him, or was he an awkward outcast before? Did the war just make everything worse? It’s hard to say, and the film doesn’t linger on it.
Travis is uncomfortable to be around – after a minute of small talk, you want to find an excuse to say goodbye and move along. His conversation with Betsy in the diner is unsettling as he claims to be the one who sees her differently, who truly understands her – and while I would personally be shoving in my chair and throwing a few dollars on the table at that point on my way out to the parking lot, she seems to buy it. She compares him to a pop song, and he – who probably has never had such a pretty woman spend so much time with him before this – is fully smitten. I have to say, this doesn’t bode well for Betsy’s intelligence in my opinion. Betsy certainly isn’t a bimbo, but she is a bit flighty. She works on a presidential campaign, but doesn’t have much to say about it. She likes goofing around at work. She is reluctantly talked into seeing an X-rated movie on their first date and then seems surprised and upset that she’s seeing an X-rated movie. Likewise on the subject of perception, I have to wonder why Betsy’s rejection of Travis is a catalyst for his downward spiral, as he mopes that he thought she was “different” – what made him think she was different? She was a beautiful woman far out of his league. But, I suppose she broke the chain of women who instantly rejected him by agreeing to a date.
This film has a strange style of dialogue where people tend to say random thoughts out loud. Betsy’s office friend (Albert Brooks!) blurts out “I love you” and it’s never acknowledged. Sporty the pimp muses that he “once had a horse on Coney Island – she got hit by a car” in response to a mention of a taxi. It seems that the movie is about to hit another unresolved non sequitur when Iris says to her toast that there’s a commune in Vermont, but Travis at least picks up on that one.
Here’s some other random thoughts and connections I made that I don’t have the spoons in me to elaborate on. Again, I’m sure these things have been pointed out a lot over time.
- I liked the sounds of kids screaming and playing outside during the scene where Travis buys the gun.
- We don’t really call people screwheads anymore, do we?
- Travis’s physical fitness transformation and head-shaving feels like a twisted callback to the military life. He’s found a purpose again and going through his familiar routine.
- Oh, so THIS is where the “Are you talking to me” thing comes from. I thought it was from Goodfellas, which, shock of shocks, is a movie that I have not seen.
- Sassy Lady Who Works In The Porno Theater is a treat.
- “Well, I WAS gonna assassinate this politician for no real good reason but was like ehh, effort, so I thought instead I’d shoot up this brothel and hope that I die before I had to answer any questions” was *probably* not the statement that he gave to the papers in the aftermath.
- I guess the ending’s happy? Iris goes back to her family and she’s back to school. Maybe her family was abusive in the first place and that’s why she ran off? I don’t know. Is she in therapy? Is she doing ok? I’m concerned for Iris. And skeptical of her parents, even though I have zero reason to be.
- The final scene is supposed to be unsettling, right? Like sure, he grew his hair back and he’s having a pleasant conversation with the woman who inspired him to attempt a political assassination, but it’s only a matter of time before he snaps again. And this time, it will probably not be in the heroic service of saving teenage prostitutes.
Also I found this picture and I liked it: