Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 3, 2013)
Since nine-year-olds weren't part of its target audience, I didn't know much about Taxi Driver upon its initial release in 1976. Really, my first introduction to the film came through the parodies of it featured on SCTV. These cast different actors in the role of Travis Bickle and reenacted certain scenes from the film. As such, we watched “Woody Allen” or “Gregory Peck” do the infamous “you talkin' to me?" sequence.
I never actually saw the movie itself until it ran on broadcast TV sometime in my teens. At the time, I couldn't see what all the fuss was about, but that may have had something to do with the rather radical editing required to run the movie on broadcast TV. In retrospect, it's amazing that there was anything left to show after they finished cutting. Heck, even the "you talkin' to me?" scene was nowhere to be found!
I think I might have seen Taxi Driver once on video in the late 1980s, but I'm not terribly sure. Whatever the case, I regarded my 1999 DVD viewing of it to be my first real opportunity to watch it.
It's a hard movie to judge on its own simply because it has become so firmly entrenched in the general societal awareness; I had a hard time looking at it from any other point of view. For example, on its own, the "You talkin' to me?" bit's pretty scary, but I couldn't help but laugh when it happened. All those SCTV memories came rushing back at me.
Still, Taxi Driver manages to be a fairly frightening, harrowing experience. No matter how it has permeated the public consciousness, it remains a well done kind of psychological look into the mind of a rather disturbed individual.
I think the picture works for a number of reasons, one of which stems from Robert De Niro's terrific lead performance. His acting never degenerates into any sort of caricature, something that must have been hard to avoid in such a role. De Niro plays Bickle as being scary mainly because he does seem so real. Travis isn't some raging nutbag ranting to himself on a street corner. Instead, he's a guy who's just so insulated and alone in his own world that his mind has become terribly warped and he's filled with palpable self-loathing.
At times, Bickle seems frightening because he appears fairly sympathetic. Who could look at the world in which he lives - one that features all manner of filth and degradation open to view 24 hours a day - and not feel disgusted? Granted, Travis doesn't act out of any real concern for the state of society - he's clearly mistaken his own self-hatred for concern about the greater good - but his impressions of the nasty state in which he lives are not mistaken.
The irony of the film is that through Bickle's suicidal rage, he actually accomplishes something good: Iris, the twelve-year-old prostitute he "adopts," ends up back home and off the streets. Travis becomes something of a hero and even appears to get a chance with the girl he longed for earlier in the film. Of course, the film concludes with some scenes that make it evident that Bickle's still seething and he's a time bomb that's likely to go off again at some point.
Again, De Niro aptly underplays Travis from start to finish. It's a powerful performance because he doesn't hit you over the head with Bickle's sickness. The lasting impression is that this psychopath doesn't really look any different from the vast majority of folks out there.
Director Martin Scorsese does a nice job of getting the viewer inside Bickle's head. At times it seems to be a confused movie as it jumps through different topics and focuses on various aspects of Bickle's life, but that makes sense. Travis is a tremendously messed up guy, and the disjointedness of the film communicates his status well. Sometimes the tangents don't make too much sense, but in its way, they thus make perfect sense.
In addition to De Niro, the remainder of the cast works pretty well. I think Jodie Foster is a bit too peppy and sweet as Iris – this kid really should have more of the life beaten out of her - but her performance is acceptable. I never much cared for her otherwise, but Cybill Shepherd hits all the right notes as unrequited love interest Betsy. Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, and Peter Boyle are all just fine in their supporting roles. None really stand out, but they acquit themselves well.
The decades haven’t tamed Taxi Driver. Grim and unsettling 37 years ago, it remains that way in the 21st century. This is a strong examination of difficult subject matter.