Travis Bickle can’t sleep. His stomach tortures him. He eats nothing but junk food and stares at his TV and writes in his diary. He says he wants to become ”a person, like other people,” but he’s almost always alone. He’s cut off, reactionary, moralistic. At night, as he drives his cab through Times Square’s seediest streets, where depravity shimmers temptingly in every neon-lit puddle, he longs for a ”real rain,” one that will wash all the human scum away. He is, he tells us, ”God’s lonely man.” And when he finally decides to ”get in shape” and give his life ”direction,” it’s one of the most horrifyingly emblematic moments in all of ’70s cinema: In the jargon of the era, Travis self-actualizes into a killer.
Forget, for a second, Robert De Niro glowering at his own reflection in his jail cell of a rented room and saying ”You talkin’ to me?” (a line the actor improvised). To reduce a film as indelible as Taxi Driver to the equivalent of “I’ll be back” is to render it a much safer work than it is. Three decades after its release, Martin Scorsese’s drama asserts its enduring power as a New York City noir, a haunted character study, and a Rorschach test for every new viewer: Is it a warning about how easily an ordinary guy can slip into psychosis, or about how easily a psychopath can be mistaken for an ordinary guy? More than three hours of DVD extras — the best being a previously released feature-length making-of — will help you decide for yourself, as will Paul Schrader’s superb script, which can be accessed on screen at any corresponding point in the movie.
When Taxi Driver opened, there was no disputing the accomplishment of De Niro, who creates as shattering a portrait of solitude-fueled disintegration as the screen has ever contained, or the uncanny poise of 12-year-old Jodie Foster as the child prostitute who becomes an unwitting trigger for Travis’ savior madness. But the movie itself was not praised without qualification: TIME called it ”yawningly predictable” and The New York Times insisted Scorsese turned the story into ”less than the sum of its parts.” Now it seems so much more, from the muted, carefully paced opening scenes to the transfixing, bloody climax — a vivid reminder that Scorsese, unlike so many who have tried to ape him, has always understood the moral line between violence that terrifies and violence that titillates. Schrader’s screenplay belongs unmistakably to the post-Vietnam moment in which America was gripped by the culture of the lone gunman, the soldier gone mad, and the murderer who imagines himself a martyr. Perhaps that should make the film seem dated; instead, it feels all too current. Taxi Driver may be very much of its time, but if you’re listening, it’s still talking to you. A