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Taxi Driver (1976)

by on 2011/08/14

“He’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction, a walking contradiction.”

* * * *

I’d always thought I wasn’t very keen on Taxi Driver. At least, that’s how I felt after a screening many years back. Since then, my familiarity with director Martin Scorsese has grown. While I’ve admired some of his work — The Aviator, Casino, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull especially — even more I’ve admired his devotion to the craft of film itself. Whether he’s raising awareness of others’ creations, or promoting preservation and restoration, he’s such a selfless advocate, it would be churlish not to cut him slack.

So I watched his early feature again and this time was suitably impressed.

The movie concerns Vietnam war vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro of Everybody’s Fine). Possibly crazy, shell-shocked, or stoned, he’s alternately a swaggering smart-ass and eerily intense. He appears to sleep little — if at all — popping pills, quaffing alcohol, working day and night. At what point does he go off the rails? Is his “reality” a grand delusion? Or is he the anchor in an urban jungle hell?

Taking a cab job in the Seventies’ New York, he uncovers the places, people, and activities of the damned. Though Bickle doesn’t discriminate, he’s certainly judgmental. His darkening sunken eyes watch everything, but reveal almost nothing. Eventually, however, he seems to snap and finds direction as a vigilante.

Initially, I saw the piece as a cautionary tale, a demonstration that two wrongs do not make a right. As events progressed, I began to accept his place in a world fetishizing violence, as in Death Wish and Dirty Harry. In his position, Bickle becomes a crusader with a code, a High Plains Drifter, a force of justice or, at least, a sort of vengeance. He makes a difference by adopting the means of his prey. To destroy his demons, he must become one himself.

I felt the themes could be argued in any way. Through both content and expression, the entire experience is hallucinatory, as interpretive as seductive. The patchwork plot, the languid visuals, an awesome (final) score by the late Bernard Herrmann . . . everything melds together to create an amorphous atmosphere . . . the grit of Urban Cowboy through a slow motion kaleidoscope. Toward the end, we hear the runs of a harp, evoking a dream. Are we waking up or falling fast asleep?

It wasn’t exactly educational, but it was enveloping, involving, and provocative. At several points I lamented its status as a cinematic punchline. There’s so much more to Taxi Driver than just “You talkin’ to me?” Viewed as a slice of life, an atmospheric tone poem, or a sociopolitical statement, Scorsese’s vision is strong, unique, more compelling than I recalled, and scarcely dulled by the vintage of its world.

* * * *

Rated 18A (Canada) / R (United States)

114 minutes

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