VOD film review: Taxi Driver
Ivan Radford | On 25, Nov 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd
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“I got some bad ideas in my head,” says Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece manages the disturbing feat of opening up that head and wallowing in those very ideas. It’s an uncomfortable, cloying, grimy experience, one that, even in 2019, leaves you wanting to take a shower afterwards.
Travis, too, is longing for a wash: a great, biblical deluge of rainwater to clean the scum off the streets. He tells us so in his journal, which gives the film its apocalyptic, paranoid, resentment-filled voiceover, and that’s just the start of Scorsese forcing us to align our perspective with that of his disturbed protagonist. We join him on cab journeys in the neon-lit nightscape, stuck to the side of his taxi or windscreen so we glide through the world with the same, slow detachment. Over the top plays Bernard Hermann’s gorgeous score, which moves almost imperceptibly between lyrical, romanticised saxophone and horror-inflected strings.
Travis, we know, is destined for horrific things. He tells us so himself, as he tries to do something great, something worthy, something important. He’s an angry outsider who wants justice, a tragic outcast who craves approval, a disenfranchised individual in search of purpose, a self-obsessed sociopath with delusions of making America great again, a lone wolf who doesn’t shy away from violence as a means to an end.
There’s a ticking time-bomb beneath the surface of Robert De Niro’s performance, one that leaks out from his blank expressions and overly polite smiles. It’s there when his articulate conversation descends into talk of a ruined world in which he’s the only good person left, or when his attempts to date political campaigner Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) take a turn for the drastically inappropriate. By the time he meets young Iris (Jodie Foster), a child who is being pimped out by the despicable Sport (Harvey Keitel), he’s already journeyed so far into his own warped morality that it’s only a short ride further to something shockingly brutal.
Taxi Driver’s strength comes from the fact that Paul Schrader’s script doesn’t try to explain away Travis’ personality easily, which lets De Niro bring oodles of depth, contradictions and nastiness to his war veteran – and stops us from ever simplifying him down to something we can support and root for. (Some of the best scenes aren’t just the superbly executed one-on-ones between Travis and Irish, but the one-on-himself chats with a mirror or Betsy’s answerphone.)
Scorsese, nonetheless, immerses us in the sleazy hopelessness of it all, with New York going through actual heatwaves and garbage strikes during the filming of what Travis sees as a trash-filled dystopia. Taxi Drive blends style and grit, before letting us, like his taxi, glide above the violence on display with a queasy, cautious distance. Looking down on this world, the thought that it could help produce a man with such a misconceived conscience and destructive narcissim is unsettling; the suggestion that it might even celebrate him for his deeds is even more so.
Taxi Driver is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.