TAXI DRIVER: You’re Only As Healthy As You Feel

By Mark Arson, Contributing Writer

2011 Atlanta Film Festival Presents TAXI DRIVER (1976); digitally restored 35mm print; Dir: Martin Scorsese; Starring Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster; Introduction and post-screening Q&A by cinematographer Michael Chapman; Thurs. May 5;  8 PM; Plaza TheatreTrailer here.

Everyone knows that TAXI DRIVER features a guy talking to himself in a mirror holding a gun, but only those who have seen it know just how disturbing that can be in context. Of course, Robert De Niro‘s character, Travis Bickle, is the movie’s main focus. In a big way, TAXI DRIVER is a character study about someone who is completely detached, a loner who just can’t seem to connect with others, adrift in a sea of what he considers more and more repulsive until he can’t stand it any more. The catch is that the film is really a thing of beauty, the New York that once was coming through like an urban kaleidoscope, thanks largely to Martin Scorsese‘s direction and (perhaps even more so) the razor-sharp cinematography of Michael Chapman. Bernard Herrmann‘s score also complements the urban setting perfectly with dissonant, muted jazz. As I said before, though, this movie isn’t about a city, it’s about a person, one who happens to be quite insane. Warning: this review contains SPOILERS (Sorry, I just find the major events too interesting to gloss over)

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures.

Travis Bickle doesn’t sleep. It’s laid out first thing in the film, as he offers to take taxi shifts “anytime, anywhere.” It’s mentioned briefly in the film that Bickle is an ex-Marine, but there are no flashbacks, no evidence. In this sense, it is ambiguous whether he is suffering from madness brought on by the trauma of war, or perhaps even imagined the whole thing. It’s overwhelmingly clear that most people aren’t even interested; in fact, most other characters in the film just react to Bickle like he’s just a bit strange or enthusiastic. Much like Peter Sellers‘ final film, BEING THERE (1979), this movie is about a strange person set loose in a world that is too busy to notice something being a bit off.

The main conflict in TAXI DRIVER comes from Bickle’s obsession with two different women, one a volunteer for a presidential campaign (Cybill Shepherd), the other a teenage prostitute (Jodie Foster). Relationships with both escalate and involve him trying to get between them and the males surrounding them, Bickle acting on a messiah complex because he simply doesn’t know how else to function. Bickle’s inevitable violent meltdown occurs in the world of prostitutes, not the world of politics, mainly because pimps don’t have Secret Service protecting them. A stark reminder of the American class divide, it also leads to Bickle being declared a hero after all is said and done, whereas if he’d assassinated a politician, things would be a lot different. This scenario was sadly echoed in real life a few years later, as John Hinckley later attempted to shoot President Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. It seems that he didn’t really grasp the situation any better than many of the characters in the film, a chilling reminder of such a disconnected loner’s reality.

So in the end, nothing changes. A lonely man’s madness continues unabated after the film ends just as it was present before the film began. It isn’t even clear whether some of the events at the end of the film even happen outside Travis Bickle’s mind, adding to the film’s dreamlike state; screenwriter Paul Schrader obviously knew the power of minimal exposition and backstory.To find a film that deals realistically with mental illness is rare, but to find one that will just let its troubled characters simply continue to exist is even rarer. After all, in real life, do people usually learn a valuable lesson from a string of events, especially if nobody notices anything wrong?

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