Movies & TV / Columns

Taken For Granted – Taxi Driver

January 25, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Good movies don’t just happen. Even when they do, there’s no guarantee that the movie will be successful. It’s rare that a movie comes along that manages to connect with audiences in a way that it becomes assimilated into the broader culture. But some movies do. Many connect in the moment, and some manage to endure long after the moment. A select few become touchstones that always garner the same response:

“What do you mean you haven’t seen X?”

However, there’s a funny thing about movies that are that popular. When everybody has seen something, the reasons for its success often get lost in the conversation. When everyone agrees that something is good, it doesn’t tend to breed meaningful conversation. After all, most people who see movies can see that a movie is good, but can’t always explain why.

These movies are Taken For Granted. This column is dedication to analyzing beloved classic movies; assessing what works, acknowledging what doesn’t, and ultimately affirming that most of them really are as good as we think they are.

Taxi Driver

Wide Release Date: February 8, 1976
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Written By: Paul Schrader
Produced By: Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips
Cinematography By: Michael Chapman
Edited By: Tom Rolf, Melvin Shapiro and Marcia Lucas
Music By: Bernard Herrmann
Production Company: Bill/Phillips, Italo/Judeo
Distributed By: Columbia Pictures
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle
Jodie Foster as Iris “Easy” Steensma
Harvey Keitel as Matthew “Sport” Higgins
Cybill Shepherd as Betsy
Leonard Harris as Senator Charles Palantine

What Do We All Know?
While only a moderate success at the box office (#17 in its year), Taxi Driver received immediate critical praise, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes and being nominated for four Oscars. The neo-noir vigilante film has become required viewing for almost anyone who takes movies seriously, and it help cement director Martin Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader and star Robert De Niro as institutions in cinema.

And they deserve to be. Scorsese is one of the great living directors, having put out numerous classics over five decades. Taxi Driver is still considered by many to be his very best. Are we just giving it credit because of its impact and who was involved, or is Taxi Driver truly one of the greatest films of all time?

The answers, by the way, are “No we aren’t,” and “Yes, absolutely.”

What Went Right?

“You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” – Travis Bickle

That line, particularly the first sentence, is among the most quoted in cinema history. If you’ve never seen Taxi Driver, you probably know the line, and you probably know that it’s from Taxi Driver. One could argue that just having a line that’s so pervasive that it’s stuck with our culture so long is all the proof I need to defend Taxi Driver and its lasting impact.

It’s more than just a memorable quote though. The central themes of the film are here; Travis Bickle’s macho bravado and his loneliness. These are the main symptoms of his nature as a sociopath; Travis’ ego cannot be understated. He believes that he is better than everyone around him, from the scum on the streets to government officials. This is, of course, untrue. Travis simply lacks the ability to relate to other people, and thus forces a life of solitude on himself; he is “the only one here.”

Stripped down, the film’s plot is simply an unveiling Travis’ warped worldview. We hear him cast himself as some kind of higher being, above the immoral filth of the people around him. But we see that he is a hypocrite, a man who frequents a porn theater, stalks a woman long after she has any interest in him, and shoots a man over a trivial amount of cash with a gun he purchased illegally. He lies to his parents about his life, painting a fantasy of self importance when really, he is nobody if any real note.

This isn’t to say that he’s without any moral center. He clearly cares for Easy (played by a thirteen year-old Jodie Foster), and recognizes that she is trapped in a harmful environment. He rescues her from her fate at the end, and is treated like a hero. But this is only after he was prevented from assassinating Senator Palatine, which would have resulted in some very different headlines. Whether the pimps or the politicians are evil or not, what is indisputable is that Bickle is not a good man, he is not a hero, but a sociopath with anger issues. As we see at the very end of the film, he remains unchanged by the events that unfolded and will likely continue his self-destructive cycle.

What Went Wrong?

When Martin Scorsese is on his game, there are few better in the business. Taxi Driver is probably the best movie I’ve reviewed on this column, and if there are genuine flaws, I couldn’t see any on the second viewing. I will say that the film is a bit hard to process on a first watch, since it is little more than a character study with social and political commentary. Until you see the ending, all of the pieces may not fit, but once you have, everything works well together.

Obviously, there’s an argument to be made that Taxi Driver appeals to a certain sect of society who neither realize or care about the film’s irony. They don’t realize that Travis Bickle isn’t meant to be a role model. The film infamously served as the primary inspiration for a delusional man who tried to assassinate President Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. But while Taxi Driver provided a vehicle, it wasn’t the lunatic pulling the trigger. We cannot hold films responsible for people who misread them.

What Went Really Right?

Paul Schrader’s script is a great one, but it’s also easy to see how Taxi Driver could have become little more than a footnote. After all, Schrader himself is a director, but aside from perhaps American Gigolo, I doubt the average person has heard of his films the way they have undoubtedly heard of Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese’s direction and Robert De Niro’s performance are huge boons, as are the cinematography by Michael Chapman and the score by Bernard Herrmann. Jodie Foster is also a key player, as finding the right child actress for this role must have been a difficult task. The character of Easy could have sunk the film in less capable hands.

Fortunately, everyone involved with Taxi Driver brought their A-Game. The film is both distinctly part of the 1970’s and yet timeless. It is still a masterpiece forty years later and is one of the best movies in Scorsese’s filmography.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park
Back to the Future

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week we reviewed another Scorsese classicRaging Bull. This week, Michael introduces me to the hidden gem known as Thank You For Smoking.

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include the original Planet of the Apes, On the Waterfront and the recent animated release Long Way North.