Taxi Driver (1976)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
As martial drums and horns build to an eerie crescendo—the signature sound of Bernard Hermann's final film score—a taxi emerges out of a blossoming shroud of steam: thus Martin Scorsese announces Taxi Driver as a descent into the urban underworld, the shining city on a hill become irredeemable necropolis. All the cultural and historical markers of disenfranchised cabbie Travis Bickle's growing insanity can now be recited by rote: Vietnam (he served); racial tensions (explicitly voiced by Scorsese himself as a cuckolded fare); post-Watergate disillusionment (the Presidential hopeful targeted by Bickle is hollow as a statue); a decaying, peep show-littered New York of the halcyon "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD" days. Yet in evoking Bickle's confused, cluttered consciousness—diary entry voiceovers stutter and backtrack, tracking POV shots linger over desired women and potential prey—Scorsese and scribe Paul Schrader create an empathetic enigma irreducible to sociological case study. Perhaps because peak-era Robert De Niro is Bickle: no actor has ever been simultaneously so ferocious and pathetic.
Equal parts scarred realism and headspace impressionism, the first two-thirds of Taxi Driver are close to perfect. The last, oft-debated third—Bickle's one-man apocalypse turned Searchers-inspired mission to rescue a pre-teen streetwalker—is unsettling for an ambiguity that just barely avoids incoherence. A chaotic, unstylized bloodbath and faintly fantastic concluding note—Bickle's dream woman returns only to be properly snubbed—only slightly complicate the fact that Bickle actually does "wash all this scum off the streets" while getting his violent martyrdom rocks off in the process. Nevermind John Hinckley's life-imitating-art Reagan assassination attempt; think of the endless parade of real-life Bickles that have captivated and befuddled the American imagination in the 35 years since Taxi Driver and consider how disturbingly hopeful is Scorsese's portrait in comparison.
March 18-31 at Film Forum