Taxi Driver Still Floors Me

original theatrical trailer

Taxi Driver (Collector's Edition)

Few movies I can think of evoke in me the literally jaw-dropping visceral reactions of Taxi Driver. Note I'm not being euphemistic, full of hyperbole, when I say "jaw dropping", for "jaw dropping" is an apropos description of my jaw's musculature's seemingly autonomic movements witnessing cringe-inducing-scene after cringe-inducing-scene throughout this disturbing (though delightfully disturbing, if you're in to being disturbed), dark film.

Wouldn't you cringe watching a handsome twenty-something man (Travis Bickle, played by a boyish, circa 1975 Robert De Niro in one of his most breathtaking performances) take a beautiful twenty-something woman (the gorgeous, Cybil Shepherd) on their first date to a ... to a dirty movie? Porn? On a first date? A triple-X (XXX) feature film? Shouldn't a couple be a couple already before being comfortable enough watching porn together? Maybe it's me. Is this guy, Travis, for real? If he is, his date, by now, has got to be thinking, 'Ewww,' and feeling the creepy-crawlies up and down her limbs.

And wouldn't you cringe even more when he's confronted about his poor choice of venue for a first date by his understandably insulted date: "Bringing me here," she protests, out on the sidewalk, having walked out of the theater in disgust, chased by De Niro, "is about as romantic as saying, 'let's fuck'!," and yet somehow remains mystified (Travis) as to how taking his date to a dirty movie for their first date could be construed as outrageously inappropriate? He doesn't get it. He's clueless, out of touch. And then how hard must it be for Travis, how angry must it make him feel, watching his date, the most beautiful girl he's ever seen before, get a ride home in somebody else's taxi cab?

"But I see lots of couples go to these movies," he'd vainly (and lamely) countered. Wouldn't your jaw drop seeing that? When you realize that this was no sick joke, but that Travis believed the best way into his date's heart, and the best way to impress her on their first date together, was with pornography?

Travis Bickle, porn aficionado, anti-hero and progressively psychologically decompensating narrator of Taxi Driver, perversely personalizes the shattered American Dream of the 1970s broken by, among other things, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Nixon, oil shortages, that all amounted to a dream turned disillusion in desperate need of redemption. We don't know the horrors Travis experienced in Vietnam, but when he interviews for a cab driver position, we know he's unwilling to talk about it. Taxi Driver is as much if not more so concerned, albeit covertly, through the character study of Travis Bickle, with exploring the moral chaos and insanity brought home by Vietnam and Tricky Dick than similarly, though overtly intentioned, Vietnam classics like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.

From the lonely shell of his cab's cramped confines, Travis sees his enemies everywhere as if they were indeed camouflaged Viet Cong in the jungle: "Spooks," "gooks," cops, "faggots," hookers, cross-dressers, fuddy-duddy political campaigners (should mention here that Albert Brooks plays one such unfunny fuddy-duddy to perfection) as well as pimps, politicians, hustlers, thugs, and pickpockets strutting down New York streets. He glares out his cab's windows upon sweltering neon-lit streets of a New York City about to boil over and explode (or so his raging paranoia perceives) with race riots, flagrant exploitation, and infestations of crime, and he wishes, in an interior monologue that cuts to a montage of gritty street scenes, for "a fucking rain that will come and wash all this scum and shit off these fucking streets."

Multiple shots of steam and exhaust escaping out of manhole-covers, accentuate the NYC-as-Inferno motif. And consider his name, as the screenwriter, Paul Schrader, has pointed out, Travis (from "Traveler"), and Bickle (from "Bicker") -- a "bickering traveler," that probably describes New York cabbies to a T -- who will momentarily go off the deep end when his volatile contempt and violent-streak get sparked by one too many rejections, and he decides to take it out on somebody, a politician named Palatine, though to Bickle he may as well be Pol Pot, in what's left of his now psychotic, post-traumatic-stress-disordered mind.

Enter Bickle's potential redeemer, a prepubescent prostitute played by Jodie Foster. And what the hell, exactly, was Jodie Foster's mother thinking letting her twelve-year old daughter take such a seedy role, surrounded by so much sleaze? I don't know, though thank God she did! Because Jodie steals every scene she's in, be it slow dancing with her creepy hippie-hairdo'd pimp (Harvey Keitel) in his dimly lit, dreary apartment, or breakfasting with Bickle, pouring mounds of sugar on her toast and jam like a jonesing junky.

During several scenes with Jodie's character and Bickle, the cringe factor goes off the charts (i.e., the scene where Bickle fights off the Lolita-ish nymph intent on unbuttoning his trousers, her mouth uncomfortably close to his crotch), though Bickle, to his credit (and to her confused incredulity) isn't interested in exploiting the girl, he just wants to talk -- is particularly hard to watch. Her fingertips plunge determinedly toward the close-up shots of his pant buttons and belt buckle, but he thwarts them away repeatedly, finally convincing her that the time he's bought with her is indeed time bought only for conversation -- a frank dialogue aimed at motivating her to runaway from her abusive pimp. He asks the obvious question, a simple question imbued with compassion and concern, which strangely, despite his own twisted litany of hypocritical depravities already documented in the film, still manages to endear the viewer to him.

"Shouldn't a girl your age be in school?" Bickle chides her. So maybe there's still hope for Bickle after all. Maybe there's a good heart left inside him, barely surviving like a prisoner-of-war.

I won't reveal whether Travis Bickle successfully rescues the pre-teen prostitute. I wouldn't want to spoil the surprising cinematic experience, in case you'd choose against your better judgment and watch this hard-to-watch film. Do know by the movie's bloody conclusion, Travis Bickle's story -- is he savior? pariah? madman? -- has made the local headlines.


  1. Nice review. But here's something I've always been curious about. Among the other cabdrivers, the one played by Peter Boyle has Travis's number, knows that he's a nutcase (despite his hidden redemptive values), and he lets Travis know this, is always goading him, putting him down. I've always wondered why Travis didn't just kill him.

  2. That's a good point. My bet is, if I may play the amateur shrink, is that Peter Boyle's character was the closest thing to a father-figure/mentor Travis had, and so he was willing to take some from him since, he looked up to him. And remember that scene just before Travis completely cracks and buys the guns and gets planning the assassination of Palatine, that he went to Boyle outside that cafeteria, and tried to explain to Boyle his unhappiness or emptiness (he couldn't really articulate what it was exactly) and Boyle was like, listen Trav, just go get laid, or get drunk, which makes me think that Boyle may not have realized the full extent that Bickle would soon sink into psychosis.


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