by Shirley Griffin, PR Director for the Thriller! Chiller! Film Festival
Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” written by Grand Rapids native son Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, and Harvey Keitel, is a story of a nowhere man who doesn’t fit in. And in this way, our awkward, anti-social leading man Travis Bickle (DeNiro), as John Lennon sang, is a bit like you and me.
It’s the story of a Vietnam vet in 1970s New York City, who’s night shifting as a taxi driver in order to stave off insomnia. Through Travis’s eyes we get a brutal tour of the underbelly of NYC in one of the seediest times in the city’s history and meet two women who fascinate him – the upper-crust angel Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) and the teen prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster).
Travis’s attempts to reach out to these women only lead to further alienation and his progressively disturbing acts inform us of his deeply troubled mentality. Put in the context of PTSD, we see a veteran trying and failing to return to a normal civilian life. Yet we can relate to him – not in actions, but in feelings – alone and stuck in a monotonous routine; rejected every time he reaches out; and disillusioned by the inability to find even one person who agrees with the things that matter to him most.
And this is what makes great art. Travis is an extreme example of fringe behavior and yet we can see him fully; feel what he feels; have empathy for his plight; and look to make better choices for ourselves when we experience loneliness in our own lives. The Cannes film festival jury agreed when they awarded this film its highest honor, the Palme d’Or, in 1976.
Travis Bickle is a character that stands squarely amongst the great characters of American literature like Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield who are disaffected souls – smart, yet lonely and struggling with how to be a genuine person in a phony world. And in film history, “Taxi Driver” is the spiritual remake of John Ford’s western “The Searchers.”
Is “Taxi Driver” an exercise in existentialism – a disoriented man facing a confused world that he cannot accept? Is Travis trying to cope in a world devoid of meaning, or rather is he the self-described man “who would not take it anymore” acting out the vengeance of an angry God, ala Old Testament fire and brimstone? Maybe both. You decide.
Interestingly enough, by the time you get to the end, you may have more questions than answers and some terrific conversation starters. Again, this is a sign of great art. So buckle your seatbelt for the bumpy ride. If DeNiro’s performance doesn’t get to you, the notoriously bloody finale of this film, or Bernard Herrmann’s (“Psycho”) relentless score surely will.
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