Scorsese Month 2015 Review: Taxi Driver

Director: Martin Sccorsese
Screenplay By: Paul Schrader
Release Date: February 8, 1976
Run Time: 114 minuets
Rating: R
Score: 4/5

For all the praise Martin Sccorsese gets as a film maker, and for all the great things i’ve heard about “Taxi Driver” before watching it, it is almost funny how little I knew about the film before setting down to watch it. Sure, I had heard Robert De Niro’s “You Talking to Me?” monologue before, and I knew he got a kick ass Mohawk at some point in the film, but that was it. The story, the plot, the themes, none of them were known to me when I sat down and watched the film. Because of this I wasn’t expecting to be as relevant as it was. And make no mistake, this has as much to say about today society as “Wolf of Wall Street” did, regardless of the fact that it was released and set in the 1970’s.

“Taxi Driver” is about a man named Travis (played by Robert De Niro), a Viet Nam vet who has returned to New York with some real issues and a hatred of the city. Due to his inability to sleep at night he gets a job as a Taxi Driver to give him something to do. Travis keeps a diary that functions as a narrator throughout the film, and in the beginning he only really talks about how he feels lonely an how he hates the scum of New York (the pimps and drug-dealers) and how he wishes for a Noah-esk rain to wash them all away. This changes a bit when he meats a woman named Betsy. Maybe “meets” is the wrong word. He sees her at one point and thinks that she is pure, unlike the rest of the city, and vows that “they will not touch her”. Travis then stalks her at her job until finally convincing her to go on a date with him…to a porno theater. This upsets Betsy (as i’m sure you could have guessed) and she no longer wants anything to do with him. Travis writes in his diary that he was wrong about her and that it’s now time for some one to do something about the city, so he goes and he buys a few guns and prepares himself to become something of a vigilante.
While this is only the first half of the movie, there is a lot going on that help explain why I think this movie is still relevant. The first thing I noticed is how much Travis sounds like Rorschach from “Watchmen”. Now for those of you how don’t know much about “Watchmen”, Rorschach was writer Alan Moore’s take on comic-book characters like “Batman” and “The Punisher”, normal people inspired by tragedy to take on the criminal underworld. However, Rorschach isn’t the kind of character you are meant too look up to. He was a violent psychopath with no regard for human life. Rorschach was very much a critic and condemnation of that kind of character. Travis function very much the same way, but what is frightening is the response to him that i’ve seen form many people. More on this after point number 2.

The second point about Travis that hits a little to close to home is how he only chooses to become violent after Betsy rejects him. That was the straw that broke the camels back. Not the violence of the city, not the dope men selling to kids: a woman. Travis is the original “Nice Guy”. He is the kind of guy who hides behind manors to mask his sexism, and the kind of guy who hates “scum” to hid his own racism (more on this latter). An what makes this so frightening is that while most people know you shouldn’t want to be Rorschach, the response i’ve most commonly seen when it came to Travis is “he was a good man with a good heart an the will to act on his morals”. When you look at all the police shootings lately, and how many people are sporting the cops instead of the (mostly unarmed) victims, can you really say you are surprise when there is such a powerfully strong and positive reaction to a negative representation of self-righteous bigotry?
For real though, if you show this film to someone and they like or defend Travis, run. Run for your life.
So that was a little heavy, lets get back to something a little lighter. Like Child Prostitution and Cold Blooded Murder. Wait…
One night a young girl jumps into the back of Travis’ cab asking him to “just go”. Before he does however, a man pulls the girl out of the cab, gives Travis a $20 bill and tells him to forget about what happened. Travis doesn’t, and over the next few days the girl becomes his fixation. He soon finds her and talks to her, learning that she is only 12.5 years old and a prostitute working for a man named “Sport”. Travis vows to help get her out, and does so at the end of the movie by killing her pimp and the other men keeping her.
However, that’s not really the end. The movie really ends with a shot of his wall, of people thanking him for what he did, including the girls parents. He then takes on a fair, only to find that it’s Betsy, who his forgiven him and is ready to retry things with him again.
Aw, this would be such a sweet ending if it wasn’t contributing directly yo the movies main themes about the glorification of violence, especially racial based violence in American society. See, throughout the movie Travis talks about the violence of the city and how disgusting it is, a claim that is validated by the city’s response to his own violence. While the pimps were not good people, none of them wronged Travis in any way, and his soul reason for killing them was “you are not acting in a way I agree with”. And the fact that he is allowed to not only walk free but also be made into a hero is the city saying one thing load and clear: so long as I agree with the killers reasons, he is not a criminal.

The racial stuff is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, and in fact, Scorsese even changed part of the film in fear that controversy would break out by those who only look at the service level of a movie. However, both the screen write and Sccorsese (I believe) have said that Travis was a racist. The main way the movie tries to tell us this is by the way he acts around people of color (almost always black) and his response to those who quite clearly are racist. However, it’s most clear in one shot when a group of black men pass him by; we go into slow motion as Travis simply watches, as if he’s waiting for them to become violent.
Another part that was meant to show this was that the part of the pimp was meant to be played by a black actor, but this was changed as I said before. And I think that is the one big flaw in the film. While this depiction of extreme racial violence would have turned some views off, it would have made the underlining theme more clear. And the fact is, there will always be those who confuse depictions of racism with endorsements of racism (for an example of this, look at “Django Unchained”, “Far Cry 4”, “Bioshock Infinite” and so on), so choosing to try an under play this aspect doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it didn’t even help the movie, as at the time of release several critics still mistook the film as being racist.
So now we look at how this compares to the other Sccorsese movies i’ve reviewed so far. Personally i’d say this is my second favorite film from him (Goodfellas still takes top honers), but it is one of the more thematically intense films i’ve seen from him. While “Wolf of Wall Street” had plenty to say about the exploitative nature of capitalism and the like, it was still pretty easy to watch it just as a black comedy. Here the themes are hard to ignore, and there is little that isn’t directly in services to it.
All in all, if it wasn’t for that creative misstep in the casting this would have been a perfect film. As it is, Taxi Driver is still a great film and very much deserving of all the praise it gets. I loved the hell out of it and I think you will too, so go see it if you haven’t already.