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Taxi Driver

October 18, 2014

Taxi Driver (1976)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster

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Synopsis: A lonely, insomniac New York taxi driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), develops an obsession with two women: Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) – a pretty girl working on the presidential campaign for Senator Palantine, and Iris (Jodie Foster) – a teenager working as a prostitute.

Review: To watch Taxi Driver is to bear witness to one of the ultimate acts of cinematic alchemy. It’s one of those films that transcends the simple world ‘cinema’, and extends into the realm of art. It’s a life-force, it’s a thing of pure, wild energy – it is. It’s also a work where every constituent element converges perfectly – the direction (amazing use of slo-mo and voiceover in particular from Scorsese), the story, the dialogue, the simply amazing central performance from Robert De Niro, Bernard Herrmann’s fantastic musical score, the stellar support cast – uniformly brilliant, and even the canvas of New York City in the mid-Seventies conspires with the material. I would classify it as one those rare films (there are perhaps only a dozen in one’s lifetime) that had me utterly immersed, gripped and enthralled for the entirety of its running time, and then subsequently lodged in my conscious for days after.

Perhaps the main reason why it is so uncannily effective, is that it’s an absolutely nailed-on portrait of solipsism in its purest form – and I’m sure the film offers a great case study for psychologists in identifying the mutant forms in which that solipsism takes hold, e.g. in Travis’ instance as a lethal cocktail of narcissism, paranoia and gross sociopathy.

Taxi Driver has so many classic and immemorial sequences, but watching it for the umpteenth time, less obvious scenes drew my attention. Travis and Betsy’s first ‘date’ – having coffee and cake one lunchtime – is an absolute masterclass of direction, acting and tremendous writing from Paul Schrader. You have to watch it twice to realise that what’s happening is not really a meeting or conversation at all, Travis and Betsy simply do not connect one iota from their respective polar dreamworlds, and Travis in particular proves completely incapable of understanding or having the cultural references to develop any rapport with Betsy. Scorsese also crucially excludes Travis from only one scene in the entire film, and this is no accident, as that different perspective highlights the complexity (completely reversing Travis’ tendency to over-simplify everything) of Iris’ entanglement with her pimp, Sport.

The end-scene is sublime – is it an ironic reversal of fortune for Travis, a wish-fulfilment exercise in his head, or a fantasy projection after he’s died? The mere existence of these alternative readings attests to the richness of Scorsese’s work, and the success he’s had in taking us inside the intense, hypnotic and hellish mind of his unreliable narrator. (October 2014)

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