Tuesday, February 6, 2024

"Taxi Driver"

I've been a student of the cinema since the 1970s. The first film I saw that aspired to art was "Taxi Driver" (1976). It's now considered a classic. I just re-watched "Taxi Driver" while introducing Robin to Martin Scorsese's early oeuvre.

Imaginatively written by Paul Schrader and powerfully performed by then-unknown actor Robert DeNiro "Taxi Driver" was made frugally on a small budget. The film surprised audiences and critics and became a huge hit. Its success launched the careers of DeNiro, director Martin Scorsese and Jodie Foster. The movie also contains work by Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle and Albert Brooks. The film got four Oscar nominations and later became notorious for inspiring a real-life assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley who explained he was trying to impress Jodie Foster.

In the story Travis Bickle, a restless young man, lives uneasily in squalid New York City. At the time the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and permeated with crime. Travis's limited intelligence and poor social skills leave him lonely and isolated. After exploring conventional options (e.g., a failed romance with beautiful blonde Cybill Shepherd) Travis searches for something to give his life meaning. He attempts a political assassination but botches the job through ineptitude. Then he veers into almost-random gun violence, an activity more common today than it was back then. In 1976 it was shocking.

What makes the film art and not mere entertainment is its aim -- to put you in Travis's head, a place few of us would normally visit. Schrader and Scorsese offer us Travis's inner thoughts, frustrations and revulsion at the city's pervasive grime and vice. Once the filmmakers engage our empathy for Travis they can transport us into experiences we'd never ordinarily seek. Critic Roger Ebert famously wrote that film is an "empathy machine," a way to step into someone else's shoes and experience a perspective the real world doesn't encourage.

"Taxi Driver" is crafted as a fever-dream. Enhancing that impression is atmospheric music from Bernard Herrmann, a legendary composer famous for work with Alfred Hitchcock. "Taxi Driver" was Herrmann's last score, completed days before his death. His contribution to the movie's achievement is critical.

Seeing the film today, fifty years after release, packs the same emotional impact but with two new responses: (1) recognition that the toxic social conditions pushing Travis into gun violence have increased in our society, making mass shootings more common now and (2) reflection on how the film's depiction of violence, controversial at the time for its gore, is tame compared to current action movies. Our society's tolerance for violence, fictional and actual, has notably increased. And that's not good. 

But the movie is. Skillful and engrossing, "Taxi Driver" deserves attention and acclaim.


  1. Such a classic film. Have you watched any of True Detective Night Country? Jodie Foster stars in it and is very good.


    1. Not yet but it's on my list. I've seen EVERYTHING Jodie has been in since "Taxi Driver."

  2. I've heard about this movie and I watched a part of it, but not the movie as a whole. I think creating empathy for the protagonist is very important because it creates a much richer experience for the viewer. I do plan to see this movie in full someday. I'm sure it's acclaimed for a reason. Nowadays, I find it hard to watch a film from start to finish. Is it a concentration thing? Perhaps.
    It's horrible how accustomed to violence we have got.

    1. Because of how information and entertainment are presented these days it has become common for young people (who, unlike us older folk, grew up in a different media environment) to concentrate for long periods of time. I understand this and sympathize. I agree with your last point, re-stating my own, that our tolerance for violence has reached an unhealthy level. It's instructive to note how differently viewers reacted to this movie in the last century (SHOCK!) than they do now (yawn). The film itself hasn't changed; we have.