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Taxi Driver - Review

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Buy the DVD Taxi Driver - 5/5 Stars
Starring: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle
MPAA Classification: R (language, sexuality, disturbing images, and violence)
Year: 1976

REVIEW BY John Ulmer

Taxi Driver is part of John Ulmer's Favorite Movie series.

The first time I saw "Taxi Driver" (1976), I knew I admired it but I wasn't sure if I liked it. It was a strange feeling that I never had experienced before. But it was a compelling piece of cinema - later that night as I lay in bed, I couldn't take my mind off of the film, I couldn't stop analyzing it. The next day I knew I had seen one of the greatest films of all time.

It may seem crazy, but it is true. I re-watched the film the next day and things started to hit me hard. Little things I hadn't noticed on my first viewing I picked up this time; tidbits hidden away that I carefully analyzed for deeper meaning. The film is like a modern-day Greek mythology - we know the fate of the characters and they know their fate as well, and the keen observation of a man in New York City is wonderfully captured by the director, Martin Scorsese.

Robert De Niro Scorsese and Robert De Niro (whose last name is credited as DeNiro in this film) had previously teamed up on "Mean Streets" (1973) together. When Brian DePalma was not given the director's chair to "Taxi Driver," Scorsese said he would direct it on one account - that De Niro star in it. And star in it he did. De Niro's performance in this film is one of the most accurate examples of acting perfection ever captured on film. He had already won an Oscar two years before as a young Don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather Part II," and he was nominated again for his role as the lonely Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver." Unfortunately, he did not gain another Oscar for his excellent portrayal.

De Niro's character, Travis Bickle, is the man you pass by on a busy street and pay no notice to. He is lonely, isolated from the real world. He is a twenty-six-year-old ex-Marine, and we feel he must have been permanently scarred by previous experiences. He hates the world but the world doesn't hate him - it doesn't even notice him.

We first see Travis applying for a job as a taxi driver. He says that he just drives around at night, so he might as well get paid for it. At first he doesn't seem too odd - just a bit quirky. He cracks a joke that goes unnoticed, and he just smiles. He seems like a gentle guy.

Then one day he walks into a volunteer office and asks Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) out on a date. Travis puts on the charm and we think that this guy might be okay. He buys a fancy suit, gets her a gift, and takes her out to a movie. But this is where we realize Travis has some problems. The movie he takes her to is a Swedish porno movie from 1969 {Kärlekens språk} (it is an actual film, the IMDb has a link to it on the trivia page for "Taxi Driver").

But Travis obviously knows no better. When Betsy leaves the theater and he runs after her, we feel sorry for him. He's wearing a nice suit, he's well-groomed, and he says that he doesn't know much about movies, he didn't know she felt that way about them, he can take her somewhere else. She goes home and in the days that follow, Travis sends her flowers and calls her on the phone but she just ignores him.

Taxi Driver Travis' descent into a world of violence starts. A fellow taxi driver sets him up with a weapons dealer. He gets some heavy equipment, and after that becomes an exercise-o-holic. He does 50 pull ups and push ups a day, keeps "every muscle tight," and lays off the booze and drugs and who knows what else he used to take.

Robert De Niro  Jodie Foster Then Travis meets a twelve-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), who he tries to free from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). The irony is that she does not want to be freed - she has no home and nowhere to go, or so she says. But Travis doesn't listen to her; he trains harder and eventually ends everything in a violent bloodbath that almost garnered the film an X-rating.

When Travis goes off on his rampage, he shaves his hair into a mohawk - I once heard that this was some sort of act that soldiers would do to symbolize they were going off on a rampage. I don't know whether that is entirely true, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is. When we first see Travis with his new hairdo, it's the first time we really think to ourselves, This guy has gone over the top now.

There is some controversy over the ending of the film. Is it real? Or did Travis die in his rampage? Theoretically I would have to say that he died, and that the ending is a dream. I just don't think that him killing humans - pimps or not - would make people consider him a hero, I don't think he would be let loose from a hospital and not go to jail. The ending seems more like Travis' satisfaction. This is what he has always wanted: Attention, gratitude, and love. I think that he has died, and that the sequence of his apartment with newspaper clippings is his mind slipping away. I'd like for this to be the ending to the film, but I doubt it is.

Emotionally I would have to say the ending really happened, that is isn't just a dream. By the end of the film we feel for Travis. He isn't just some violent psychopath like so many films present us with nowadays. He is a kind man who has been treated harshly by his surroundings, a man who got tired of the filth and scum on the streets and stood up. To think that he died trying to free someone is sad. To think that people like Betsy would never realize how much he loved her and really didn't understand what was wrong with a porn film is sad. But to think that he survived, and that he was treated as a hero later, is emotionally the perfect ending.

I must bring up something further about the ending of the film. I have read discussions about "Taxi Driver," discussions on whether Travis was truly part of the FBI. At one point in the film, he is writing a letter to his folks, and says he is in the FBI and cannot disclose his location. Later he tells someone else he is in the FBI. Given the chance he IS in the FBI, I must say that him living and not going to jail at the end of the film is a possibilty, because if he was part of the FBI then he might not go to jail. But I don't think Travis is in the FBI. First of all, an FBI agent would not raid a brothel and shoot pimps. He would arrest them with other agents (or so I can only assume). And in that letter to his folks, he also says that he has a nice girlfriend, which he doesn't. He almost did but he blew it. Which makes me think that perhaps this is what Travis would like to think - what he almost believes. Maybe he wasn't an ex-Marine - maybe he was part of the FBI and was kicked out, and has to lie about his past. Maybe he still likes to believe he is in the FBI.

I don't know if Travis lived or died, I'm not sure anyone is really supposed to, but the difference here is that we care and want to know. I left this film thinking back and analyzing it, almost frame-by-frame in my mind. Trying to think what it meant, what different camera techniques symbolized, trying to figure out how I wanted the film to end. How many times can you say that about a film nowadays?

Copyright, 2003, John Ulmer, used with permission

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