“Thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks.” So speaks God’s lonely man Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) as he trawls the streets of New York once more in this timely BFI reissue of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. A Vietnam vet with an unsteady grip on reality, Bickle simmers over with anxiety and barely suppressed rage. We first meet him as he goes through a perfunctory interview to get a job as a cabbie. His awkwardness and inability to communicate is immediately evident and Scorsese frames him so we’re always aware of an off-kilter world around him.
Unable to sleep, Bickle pops pills and spends his days in porn theatres and his nights working the streets. His vision of New York is filled with disgust: “Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat. Some nights, I clean off the blood.” His loneliness looks to be assuaged by the arrival of Betsy (a radiant Cybill Shepherd), who works in a campaign office for a presidential candidate. His misguided attempt to woo her make it only more evident how detached he is from the wholesome reality he longs for. There’s a dreadful heart-breaking comedy in the scene where he takes her to a porno theatre: “Lots of couples come here.”
Bickle is a character in pursuit of a narrative that eludes him. He keeps a diary full of his ponderings and complaint, but he crucially lacks motive: “I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person like other people.” Having crapped out with Betsy, he becomes obsessed with child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster in an early role), but alternates his obsession with her and Senator Palantine, the candidate who Betsy is working to elect. Buying a selection of guns, his psychosis begins to resolve itself into a need for violent expression.
Just as Raging Bull would later create a complex ambivalent counterpoint to the Rocky pictures, so Taxi Driver is taking the pulpy vigilante genre of Death Wish into something altogether more strange and worried. Drawing inspiration from real life shooter Arthur Bremer Paul Schrader also dips it in his own autobiographical and Dostoyevskian darkness to create a genuinely disturbing character piece. Travis isn’t a monster. In fact, in some scenes he’s sweet as he repeatedly attempts and fails to make human contact. The soundtrack – completed by Hitchcock’s legendary composer Bernard Hermann on the day of his death – gets at the core romanticism has decayed – like the flowers in Travis’ flat – into sleaze and sad saxophone.
Scorsese’s direction always keeps us uncomfortably close to Travis’ subjectivity, whether we’re prowling night time Manhattan or gazing into a glass of Alka-Seltzer until the whole world disappears into the healing hiss. The accompanying freaks – including a brilliantly psychopathic cameo by the director himself – contextualise Travis’ madness within a more widespread cultural and political breakdown. But the explosion when it comes is horrific, gruesome and nightmarish. Rewatching Taxi Driver today with the barely suppressed rage now channelled directly to the Oval Office, this is a film that is absolutely talking to us.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty