Taxi Driver

Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on October 19, 2007, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

In this edition of “Chad Picks Classic Flicks,” I’m skipping over the 1960s in favor of tackling the wide array of great movies in the 1970s. I will return to the decade of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll eventually, but for now, we’re traveling to a time when VHS and Betamax were waging a format war, when Johnny Carson was “King of Late Night”, and when the Internet was something only engineers cared about. So grab your bellbottoms, throw on your favorite ABBA album, and prepare to get funky—film style.

Beginning with the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, and ending with the release of One for the Heart in 1982, American film was largely defined by low-budget, realist, sometimes exploitative films made by young, independent filmmakers. This era is dubbed “New Hollywood” because it threw away the standards of the old studio system and completely changed the way movies were made and marketed.

New Hollywood films were groundbreaking in their technique and style, but most notably for the themes they addressed. Anti-establishment and disaffected youth were common subjects. Sexual angst and heightened realism were pervasive. There are many noteworthy New Hollywood films that share these traits, but none stand out as much as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

Set in post-Vietnam Era New York City, Taxi Driver follows lonely insomniac taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) through his isolated and desperate life driving through the dirty streets and fantasizing about laying waste to lowlifes and criminals. He spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a blonde overwrought campaign aide to a presidential hopeful, and successfully woos her into a date.

But Bickle, who apparently has not been on too many dates, brings Betsy to a sleazy porno film, and she quickly leaves in disgust. Travis feels rejected and confused, and so begins his slow descent into delusion and despair.

The deep-seated anger Travis has suppressed begins to emerge as he becomes more withdrawn from the world he loathes so much. He buys a few handguns and, in a very famous scene, talks to himself as he flashes his gun in front of a mirror: “You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here,” he says. He becomes the only person in his life, and soon his deluded mind takes over, creating a whole new Travis; a ruthless and desperate assassin.

Travis then unexpectedly meets a 12-year-old prostitute (played by a very young Jodie Foster), and takes it upon himself to save her from her pimp and from a life on the streets. The problem is that she doesn’t necessarily want to be saved, and Bickle’s problem is that he can’t accept that. He has a mission in his mind, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t go for glory trying to save the girl and win Betsy back.

If you haven’t gathered it already, Taxi Driver deals with a seriously disturbed character. He’s a racist, homophobic, confrontational hermit and has illusions of grandeur. He tries to become a hero but doesn’t realize that he’s doing everything wrong in the process.

Yet equally as mesmerizing as the film’s central character is its style. The unorthodox cinematography brings out the grittiness and nuances of the streets, and the dialogue flows well while maintaining depth and insight. The taut supporting cast offers a hearty taste of authenticity with a dash of humanity, which serves as a stunning contrast to the perceived inhumanity in Bickle.

Taxi Driver was the film that pushed both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro into the limelight. It won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and a slew of Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. It’s my favorite Scorsese film, not only for the reasons explained, but for the film’s residual effects. It made me think long after it ended, and I give major props to films that can do that.

This weekend, consider escaping the autumn chills by watching Taxi Driver in the caged swelter of your dorm room. It’s not the greatest date movie, however, so don’t cuddle up with your significant other expecting a romantic segue into a make out session; it’s a brutally honest film that delves deep into a mad mind. If that’s not your cup of tea, just skip right to the make out session.

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