Taxi Driver has proved enduringly popular since its release and whilst it’s always difficult to identify a film as having a ‘cult’ following, this certainly does. In the same way that Pulp Fiction has assumed a ‘specialness’ that allows for the film to be both wildly popular yet be so distinctive, it is Taxi Driver’s uniqueness which has assured its longevity. It doesn’t glorify its vigilante anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), yet somehow it’s very easy to feel drawn into the underworld in which he belongs. The slow-motion point-of-view shots side us with Bickle (a disturbing place to be) with the lingering shots focusing on the ‘scum’ he clearly deems abhorrent – prostitutes, pimps, drug-dealers. We sense his disgust, possibly Martin Scorsese’s greatest achievement in the film, and yet we also feel his isolation.
One telling shot of the film comes as the camera pans away from Travis on a payphone being rejected, once again, by a beautiful woman he’s desperately tried to make a connection with. Scorsese reputedly called this the most important shot of the film: it’s as if we can’t bear the pain Travis feels at being unable to connect, much though we thoroughly understand any woman’s reservations about Bickle. In contrast, we witness the final bloodbath in forensic slow-motion: it seems illogical that we can face this but not the rejection, but Scorsese pushes it, and it really fits.
Compelling though the characterisation of Bickle is, we actually know very little about him. Travis Bickle is a Vietnam veteran and whilst that resonates much less today than in 1976, that dark period of American history ostensibly inflects this solitary man; his ugly scar it may well be assumed is a war injury, yet the psychological damage, the mental scars, prove themselves much uglier. Taxi Driver doesn’t provide a character study, it merely presents us with a few intriguing days in Bickle’s life. But we don’t need in depth character development, as in a slightly unnerving way, we seem to know all we need to about him. In that way De Niro and Scorsese create Travis Bickle by merely suggesting his psychopathic tendency whilst, brilliantly, keeping him human and never straying too far from his very personal take on the city around him.
Robert De Niro has gone on to acquire a kind of ‘living legend’ status as a Hollywood actor, arguably only joined by Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and very few others to be held in such high regard. His success has ultimately immortalised his Taxi Driver performance and kept interest in the film fresh and constant. For that matter, so have the parodies and homages, particularly of and to the legendary ‘Are you talkin’ to me?’ scene in front of the mirror. De Niro is beautifully supported by the likes of Harvey Keitel and a young Jodie Foster, but it’s his performance which is something extra-ordinary.
The major sadness of Bickle is that he tries to reintegrate himself into society but fails repeatedly; he says “I believe that one should become a person like other people” but has become so insular already that he simply cannot function in normal society. Just as he is disturbed by society, society is disturbed by him. By the end of the film he is hailed as a hero after ‘saving’ 12 year-old prostitute Iris in a bloody shoot-out, but his glorification, as with the way he is treated throughout Taxi Driver, seems somewhat unjust. His eventual triumph is just as easily a tragedy and, morally, Bickle puts us in a very awkward position; cinematically however, he is nothing short of thrilling.
Perhaps Taxi Driver no longer makes a particularly relevant comment on the psychological damage experienced by many servicemen who returned after the Vietnam war, yet this was scarcely the most significant issue it dealt with even on its initial release. People like Bickle, isolated and alone, separated from society, still exist today, and it is very easy in fact to draw parallels between his actions and the many shootings in public places that occur around the world, most notably, still, in America. Above all else however, Travis Bickle is a fascinating individual in a fascinating film and is deservedly counted amongst the great characters, and performances, of all time.