Taxi Driver: A Thoroughly Unsettling Masterpiece

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This film left me shocked, even horrified, and with a decidedly averse attitude towards humanity in general. All in all, it was potent, and very effective.

Synopsis

Travis, a veteran of the Vietnamese war, gets a job as a New York taxi driver. Battling with insomnia and tormented by the things he’s seen; he decides to take it into his own hands to cleanse the city of its ‘filth’. He ends up killing a pimp and a few gangsters in a very violent shootout.

I think the film was excellent in the portrayal of its central message: The evil and depravity humanity is capable of, as well as the psychological effect this has on people. This movie will single-handedly cure (and by cure I mean violently expurge) any sort of wishful thinking regarding human nature.

Themes

💥 The effects of war. When Travis returns from the war, he asks to work “long hours”, an attempt to drown out the horrors he experienced. The war leaves him disconnected from morality and reality, and isolated from other people. This ties into the next theme:

👽 Alienation and loneliness. Even (or especially) in the bustling streets of New York, Travis is alone. His alienation is psychological. He has lost decency and sensitivity, and is as a result spurned by others, only increasing his alienation from the world, and, ultimately, his murderous desire.

😈 Humanity’s capacity for evil. As a taxi driver, Travis is exposed to the full spectrum of human evil: Prostitution, murder, rape and hatred. In a sense, his isolation from humanity, and role as an overlooked taxi driver, gives him a clearer perspective than most.

🔫 The desensitization to and glorification of violence. The movie portrays Travis as a twisted psycopath, who does not belong in society. But, when he unleashes his hatred and desires in a killing spree, he is suddenly celebrated and accepted by others. The film highlights humanity’s glorification of violence, and society’s desensitization to its own evils. 

🧠 Mental health and psychopaths. Travis’s desire to do good and cleanse New York of evil becomes a distorted obsession to kill. He holds onto it, this last vestige of his humanity, and every act of depravity he witnesses only fuels his hatred. The movie is a window into the mind of the mentally unsound, the factors that create a psycopath, and how convoluted the human mind may become, justifying practically anything.

🖤 Racism. While Travis says and does nothing overtly racist, his racism is revealed in his focus. His gaze and attention often lingers on black people, and his reaction to their physical presence and actions is often very telling.

Motifs and symbols

🚖 The taxi. The taxi represents Travis’s mind, isolated from the real world, a cocoon where his hate grows and festers. Each passenger he carries leaves not only a filth on the backseat of his taxi, but a distinct impression on his mind. The taxi becomes Travis’s world. The windshields, covered with rain, dull and distort the world around Travis, indicative of his mental state.  

👨 The murderous husband. At one point a crazed man enters Travis’s taxi. He points out his wife at a second story window, and proclaims he is going to kill her (in very graphic terms) as she is cheating on him with a “n*****”. With the taxi as a representation of Travis’s inner state, we may see this event as his inner dialogue, the other man voicing his conscience. They certainly are alike in many aspects. 

📺 Television. The pornos watches (and even takes a woman on a date to) demonstrate his disconnect and desensitization to the world. He watches them with a blank expression, almost bored, leaning back and making finger guns at the screen.

In his apartment, Travis is often shown watching television dramas and romances, with rapt attention. TV becomes the only way he can access the real world, other people, and feel included in relationships. When he topples the TV near the end of the movie, it is therefore significant as a destruction of one of his last connections with humanity.

🌊 Water. Travis constantly refers to a ‘cleansing’ or ‘purification’ of New York, in the form of a flood of Biblical proportions, alike to that of Noah. He also constantly drives past the same fire hydrant in order to clean his car after picking up a particularly unsavoury passenger. Water becomes a symbol of cleansing, and more ominously, purging.

Plot

The movie lacks a significant plotline. It simply follows Travis as he goes about his daily business, and highlights a few of the things he witnesses. The pace is slow and meandering, lacking drive and direction for most of the film.

A lot of foreshadowing takes place. Travis consuming more and more pills. His ominous, whispering narration of certain scenes. His crude, childlike writings in his diary. His haunted look and red eyes. From the get-go, we can tell there is something wrong with him, and there is a sense of delirium. This perception is only solidified throughout.

The film is masterful in its creation of tension, in the small moments of action and reaction, in its insinuations and the disbelief it creates.

The foreshadowing builds tension, layer upon layer. The movie seems to be constantly escalating towards something, but so slowly that you begin to doubt what is actually happening. You get the impression that the whole thing is senseless after all. But you cannot look away, as a growing sense of horror and foreboding begins to permeate the screen.

There is this constant sense that something is about to happen, that Travis is about to lash out, or kill someone, but it doesn’t materialize until the end.

Setting

1970s New York is depicted as morally bankrupt and filthy and is significant in how it influences Travis’s perception of the world. It is the perfect setting for this tale of alienation and disconnect.

Cinema stuff

While it lacks perhaps the grand, extravagant cinematography of a movie like Citizen Kane, this film has its own unique genius.

📷 Cinematography

One of the most striking scenes in the movie is also seemingly arbitrary and insignificant. The opening scene of the movie depicts a taxi driving through the mist, its windshield coated in rain. The camera seems to be attached to the taxi, featuring close ups of the bumper and hood, and shots from behind the windshield.

15 Most Memorable Quotes From Taxi Driver | ScreenRant

The use of close-ups was to me the most prominent aspect of this film’s cinematography. We often have close up shots of Travis’s eyes, and see the world from his perspective, behind the wheel of his taxi, or through his rearview mirror. Where his gaze lingers, our attention is drawn.

This creates a sense of intimacy with Travis, as if we are inside his mind. This allows the viewer to sympathise with him, understand his loneliness, and the growing sickness of his mind.

💡 Lighting and colours

Harsh red lighting was frequently used to illuminate Travis’s face, for obvious reasons. Director Martin Scorsese claimed the red “ruined the movie“, but nonetheless it is a striking and effective creative choice.

Significantly, the film depicts mostly scenes at night, and shadows are used to ominous effect, cloaking certain figures and lending an air of mystery to the scenes.

💻Editing

There are often long, monotonous and drawn out scenes that start off normal, but quickly become disconcerting as Travis lingers far too long on something, or simply stares at nothing, reminding us of his instability.

The whole movie blends together in slow lilt, creating the illusion of daily life just passing us by, emphasising the sense of intimacy with Travis, and contrasting with the senseless violence and depravity that takes place amidst normal activities. 

🎶 Soundtrack

While lacking variety, the movie’s soundtrack was unnervingly apt. The soft, slow jazz punctuates chapters, blending them together in the haze of normal life, creating the sense of time simply passing by.

It also contributes to the mellow, laid-back tone and pace of the movie, as contrasted to the brief spasms of horror.

I distinctly remember the music during Travis’s shoot out with the gangsters, which used heavy drums and tamborines to create a paroxysm of tension and gut clenching horror.

Interesting as well was the strumming harp used when panning the dead bodies in one of the final scenes. It introduced a sense of magic and elevation, a mystical, almost unreal element to the whole thing, which contrasts to the bloody, concrete reality.

Characters

Travis (Robert De Niro). Travis is an ex-marine and veteran of the Vietnam War, trying to escape his past through hard work and long hours. But instead of alleviation, he only finds further horror in New York. He develops a twisted hero complex, and begins to see himself as a divine arbiter of justice, sent by God to cleanse New York.

Travis is not simply another character, however, but the movie itself. He is the plot. We see everything through his lens.

The acting (as is to be expected) was simply superb. Robert De Niro keeps the audience captivated in his unsettling gaze, his uncomfortable charisma, and all the quirks and oddities of his character. He realizes this twisted, haunted personality in an intense, but understated fashion. His presence is simply magnetic, and decidedly off-putting, even if you cannot place exactly why.

You can see significant character development taking place, as Travis becomes entrenched in his opinions of people, and his desire to do good descends in a desire to do evil to bad people.

Top quotes

Thank God for the rain, which has helped wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks. I’m working long hours now: six in the afternoon to six in the morning. Sometimes, even eight in the morning, six days a week. Sometimes seven days a week. It’s a long hustle, but it keeps me real busy. I can take in three, three-fifty a week. Sometimes even more when I do it off the meter. All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk p*****s, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.

Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

His words “I’m God’s lonely man” are especially significant. In his eyes he is this vigilante, sort of like batman in fact, who protects the people, executing the will of God and doing “important work for the government”.

Now I see it clearly. My whole life has pointed in one direction. I see that now. There never has been any choice for me.

There is this sense of divine inevitability, as if God himself has dictated his destiny, and has set him upon a path of holy retribution. 

The problems

There are, admittedly, a few things to be said against the movie.  

Perhaps the dialogue could have been polished up a bit (although it does contribute to the unhinged effect of the character).

And some might argue that it is ‘socially irresponsible’, citing an admittedly unrealistic and very dangerous narrative concerning guns, and the types of behaviour that can be justified by apparent good intention (although one might ask whether artists have any responsibility to society in the first place, which is quite an interesting question).

But one thing that did particularly bother me is the ending. The violent, gory scene with the slow-motion panning of the dead bodies was very effective and powerful. But this effect was also very effectively dissipated in the final moments of the movie.

Lets get this straight: Travis buys guns illegally, walks into a brothel, kills a few gangsters in front of a child (two of them in cold blood) and is allowed to go away scott-free, and is in fact celebrated as a saviour, even being thanked by the parents of the child he just traumatized. And Travis doesn’t even feel bad. He’s got a “bit of stiffness” after being shot in the neck, and seems to be mentally pretty fine with what happened (and he even gets the girl who spurned him earlier in the movie).

We might pass this off as commentary on society’s glorification of violence. But still, it does irk me that this dark, gritty movie had such a soppy, happy, very typical Hollywood ending.

Closing thoughts

Throughout the movie I was thorougly unsettled, scared of what might happen, and sometimes really just disgusted at the depth of human depravity. I at once despised and sympathised with Travis.

While a weak ending dulls the strength of the film, Taxi Driver is poignant, brilliantly shot and well-deserving of its ‘classic’ status.


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Brian Scoles
5 months ago

Your critique about the justice dispensed by Travis brings to mind a remark made by Thomas Hardy: “Do not do an immoral thing for moral reasons.”