Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

Sometimes with movies on the AFI list (see this post for more info), we’re not very excited about watching one. We just don’t anticipate it being our cup of tea. Such a one is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It’s been sitting on our coffee table for probably a month. But, last night, we bit the bullet (ha) and watched it. I’ve discovered something interesting about this movie in the past month … it seems to be one of those films that everyone has heard of, everyone knows about, but few have seen. And I’ve got to be honest here: I kind of wish I was still in that category.

Taxi Driver is the story of a Vietnam veteran named Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who, plagued by insomnia, takes a job as a taxi driver in NYC. On his drives through the city, he takes in all of the seediness and filth, and wishes that someone would clean it all up. He also sees Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a beautiful young woman who is working on the campaign of presidential hopeful Charles Palantine. He screws up enough courage to talk to her, but after a disastrous second date (he takes her to a porn film), she blows him off. He then becomes obsessed with a young prostitute named Iris (Jodi Foster); when he finds out she is merely twelve years old, he aims to rescue her from her sordid life, and so takes the task of “cleaning up the city” into his own hands. The entire film follows his descent into madness and questionable return to normalcy.

First of all, have you ever noticed how movies made in the 70s just look so very seventies-ish? Stylistically, I suppose the movie is quite interesting and impressive: it truly captures the look and feel of the less desirable areas of a big city. The cinematography and the soundtrack both work very well here. It’s a gritty movie with an edge of melancholy, and you definitely get drawn into that. Then there’s De Niro. He gives an excellent performance, walking a fine line between being unsettling yet compelling. The supporting cast, including Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, and Peter Boyle, are all good as well, but the film is 99% De Niro, and he carries it well.

We didn’t think Taxi Driver would be our cup of tea, and we were mostly right. I often lose patience with movies that seem to be working too hard to give the impression of being “deep”, and we’re not huge on violence, although there was less than expected. Mostly, I would say that the movie’s main strength is in De Niro’s performance, in that he really draws his audience into his feelings of isolation and otherness. It took me a while to come up with what I thought the movie was trying to say, and I am not entirely sure I’ve got it, but I think that the major theme, besides isolation, is the contradiction of who we are versus who we wish we were. Travis looks at the world around him and sees scum and killers, and thinks that the world would be a better place without them, but he never acknowledges that he holds those characteristics within himself as well.

So, okay, it gave us some things to think about. And where I thought the movie should have ended, I would have been content. I wouldn’t have necessarily liked it, but I would have gotten something out of it. But then, there are about 20 more minutes of movie, which make no. sense. at all. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice it to say that there are various schools of thought on whether or not the ending of the movie is “real” or whether it takes place in Travis’ mind. I have read things out there on the internet that seem to “verify” its reality, but I am still not convinced. Those last few scenes take such a departure from the gritty reality of the rest of the piece that I don’t see how they can follow the same framework. But I guess maybe I’m not on the same wavelength as Mr. Scorsese, huh?

I would be hard-pressed to recommend this movie. I think if it’s something you’re interested in seeing, you’ve probably already seen it. I get that it’s early Scorsese, and he’s a big deal, but I think that some of his later movies are probably better in terms of style and content, if not acting: De Niro would be the reason to see Taxi Driver, if you’re looking for a notable performance.

6 responses to “Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

  1. Thanks for your honest review! I haven’t seen it and probably never will. The only reason to see it is De Niro’s performance, but still not enough to give it a watch. I’m also not a Scorsese fan, the only one I appreciate is Age of Innocence, which is obviously a completely different genre from this. The other De Niro’s celebrated film that’s super violent was Cape Fear which I did watch, amazing performance yes, but not something I’d easily recommend either.

  2. I’m going to be honest and say that while i think this is a well written review, i still want to see this.

  3. Reading your review Sam made me think of that Ghandi quote: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world!’. I agree with your analysis of the film, you’ve shrewdly summed up what Taxi tries to convey. The truth is it is not a very enriching film, which it probably wasn’t meant to be. But I can’t help thinking that maybe it should have been.

  4. You clod. Taxi Driver is one of the greatest achievements in motion picture history. You obviously didn’t pay attention to the decades of film history that led up to making a film like this possible. You don’t get it. Too bad.

    • You’re probably right. I hope that you can at least appreciate that I tried to address and think about different themes and aspects of the movie, but I do admit that this type of film is not really my thing. Thanks for your comment!

  5. I understand what you’re saying in your review and appreciate the honesty as well. I get that not all movies are for everyone. I personally really like Taxi Driver, I find it such an interesting film.
    In terms of the ending, I’ve always interpreted it as real-life, not imagined by Travis. It’s showing the irony and reinforcing the idea of how messed up society is by calling Travis a hero and allowing things like this to happen.
    Overall I feel that Taxi Driver deserves a bit more credit than the last line of this review gives it. De Niro does give a noteworthy performance, as usual, but there are a lot of other details about this film that I think make it pretty interesting and unique and definitely worth a watch.
    One scene that has always stuck in my mind, for example, is the part where Travis attempts to call Betsy on a payphone to ask her for another date (unsuccessfully) and to see if she got the flowers he sent her, etc. During the conversation the camera pans away from Travis completely and looks down the empty hallway next to him. It’s like the conversation is so embarrassing and pathetic that the scene moves on without him, like it’s too bad to watch. And I always liked the way that Scorsese uses Travis’s narrated journal entries as a means to showcase his self-induced isolation, with the way Travis talks to himself as much or more than any other character. It was a pretty unconventional tactic at the time and it gives you insight into Travis’s contradictory thoughts and behavior. Throughout the film you find yourself feeling sympathetic towards him, but then you eventually don’t know what to feel as he turns more violent then is finally praised as a hero. (All of which was a very nice surprise ending by the way, which I hope I didn’t ruin for anyone)
    Okay one last thing, I think the importance of the unnamed passenger who gets into Travis’s taxi one night should also be noted. He tells Travis to pull over to a curb and begins describing to him how he’s going to kill his adultering wife. It is the first time in the whole film that the idea of violence is introduced to Travis. That, coupled with his failed attempts to reach out/rejections from Betsy, mark a turning point in the film. From that point on you can see a change in Travis and his further descent into mental instability.

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