Wednesday, August 19, 2015

AFI Top 100: #52 "Taxi Driver"

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976)

It might have come out two years before, but it feels appropriate that #52 on the AFI Top 100 list is Taxi Driver, following The Deer Hunter... to me, this is its unofficial sequel. Once again, Robert De Niro stars as a veteran of the Vietnam War, but his mental state is now teetering on the edge. Filmed before De Niro himself became a household name, he was granted the opportunity to delve into this role by moonlighting as a taxi driver and hanging out with pimps in New York City. His decent into the seedy world created by director Martin Scorsese is a slow build to insanity, gripping and disturbing.

Heavy with narration, like the recitation of a deranged journal, the film introduces Travis Bickle (De Niro) through his own eyes. He's an isolated veteran, committed to his work as a late night taxi driver. His vantage point of the world from behind the wheel is dark and forbidding, and it disgusts him. New York City in the 1970s, filled with murderers and pimps and drugs, Travis makes every attempt to live as normal a life as he knows how. Attempts to woo Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a beautiful political campaign manager, highlight his anti-social tendencies, and as his anxieties build, the urge to act out with violence at the world around him becomes overwhelming. It's when he meets a 12-year-old prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), that Travis is driven to take action to save herand everyonefrom the scum of the city.

Watching Travis's mental state unfold is the truest representation of madness overcoming a seemingly sane person as you will ever see. His ideas are well-founded, at first, and his goals are just. It's the lack of social awareness and the delusion of power that makes it so terrifying. Not to mention the methodical preparation of his plan, and I use the term 'plan' loosely. He transforms in every way imaginable, and the struggle for the audience is this: are you with him, or are you against him? If the film does its job, you'll be both.

Scorsese's style here can be likened to that of a student art film, particularly in the shooting of the streets at night. Lens flares and super-close-ups, even the narration, all contribute to its amateur qualitiesthese are also what makes it so effective. It's filters and glossy lenses have been stripped away, and we can see the world the way that Travis does. It's ugly and dirty, and no matter how hard he tries, he'll never belong in the beautiful parts. Scorsese knew how to create the isolation on camera, to the point where spending any time with Travis is unnerving.

Taxi Driver has a singular focus: Travis's transition from 'talk' to 'action.' A portrait of how a man becomes a mass murderer. That's it. Anything else is secondary, either to be dismissed entirely (like the so-called friends he shares late night coffees with) or to further solidify his convictions (like Scorsese's director-cameo as a passenger rambling about killing his cheating wifethe film's best written scene). Even Foster and Shepherd play more peripheral roles in the outcome of events than the movie would have you believe. They're excuses for Travis, ammo that he can use in his arsenal for vigilante justice. Not to say the periphery isn't important; but it's the combination of everything that creates the living breathing organism that is the city of New York. Eventually, it all becomes indistinguishable from everything else.

For many fans of the film, this simplicity is what makes it great, one of the best ever. Personally, though, I've never felt this way. I'm always left wanting more, especially from Travis. He gives us so much information, through his internal and external monologues, not a thought is left unsaidyet I still feel like pieces are missing, pieces that might have had a stronger grip. He's a fascinating subject, of course; like a child who discovers he's in a grown-up man's body and isn't as helpless as he once was. No one is psychoanalyzing Travis, because he is the narrator and to him, he is perfectly sane. No rational for violence as been more sound than his. Again, because he says so. As in his head as we are, we couldn't be further removed from him. The result is a sense of dissatisfaction I can't shake.

I adore this movie, but it's missing a crucial element: catharsis. Perhaps on purpose, the audience doesn't build to the delivery of justice for those who deserve it. The climax is messy, both unchoreographed and frantic. It's over before we know what hit us. Scorsese doesn't wait for you or your feelings, and in the end, he reaches in and messes with your expectations. Forget what you want to happen! You're in Travis' world now. Incredible, yes, but a place I'd like to get far, far away from, thank you very much.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Columbia Pictures]

Check back next time for #51 on the list, West Side Story — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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