It’s a little odd to reflect back on Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver and still be sympathetic toward its central character, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), after seeing the things that he does in the movie. Perhaps it’s because of how effective the film is at establishing the tone and allowing us to know Bickle that allows for this feeling. We can relate to him because, regardless of who we are and our current place in the world, we have all felt like Bickle: alienated, alone, and disillusioned with the world while ironically wanting little more than to leave our mark on it.
Bickle is an insomniac, possibly stemming from his time served during the Vietnam War, and he’s decided that instead of lying in bed, trying to sleep, he should do something. He gets a job driving a taxi. This gives him an opportunity to see the world at night, which is even less of a pleasant place than it is during the day. He drives the scum of the city, sometimes. He doesn’t get along with the other cab drivers, even though he’d like to. That becomes one of the running themes of the movie.
Take, for instance, his attempts to court a campaign worker, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). He succeeds as sort of an oddball until the date goes horrendously wrong—and he doesn’t know why. Later, he finds a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) whom he decides needs saving. Of course she does, even if she protests, because it gives him a purpose, it allows him to fulfill a quest he wanted anyway, and he believes it will allow him to be vindicated, validated, and finally connect with another human being.
Bickle is a character study and a thriller, one whose first three quarters allows us to get to know a deeply disturbed and lonely man and begin to sympathize with him. We can tell pretty early on that there’s more wrong with him than just insomnia, but we’re not sure exactly what. Then the loneliness and alienation make themselves present. The final quarter of the movie, well, takes us to a thematic and logical conclusion to what’s transpired beforehand.
Taxi Driver is a fantastic movie—a mixture between a disturbed character study and a twisted thriller.
Taxi Driver is effective because of the tone it establishes, the amount of time it allows us to get to know its protagonist, and because of the performance turned in by Robert De Niro. It’s not easy to portray a damaged and disturbed character delicately, particularly when the issues he faces are not right on the surface. He has to convey them to the audience without being overt about it. We have to feel his loneliness and isolation while the character is putting on a different face. De Niro is incredible.
Voice-over narration is frequently used as a crutch in films. Instead of figuring out a way to show us something, the film uses the narration to tell us. It’s lazy. Taxi Driver has narration—at first, often; later, less frequently—that is used to reinforce its themes and help us understand its protagonist’s state of mind. He has a diary, and what we hear in the narration is what he’s writing down. He starts the movie pretty normal, coherent, and like nothing is amiss—except, of course, for insomnia. That level of sanity doesn’t last.
Taxi Driver is a fantastic movie—a mixture of a disturbed character study and a twisted thriller that makes you understand and sympathize with its protagonist, even after all the not-so-great things you’ll see him do. It has an amazingly rich performance by Robert De Niro at its core, establishes a steady, unwavering tone that sets the mood, has a great score, and is thematically deep. It’s a movie without any weaknesses—even the voice-over narration is used effectively, and not as a crutch. What a ride.
Conclusion: Taxi Driver is a thematically rich character study/thriller.
Recommendation: Taxi Driver is a must-see.