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The movie follows Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a former US Marine veteran living out his civilian life as a New York taxi driver. He is very unstable in his mental state. Suffering from insomnia, watching porn movies in cinemas during the day, thinking that the world has become a rotting decay of itself, he’s pretty much a loner with a lot on his mind. With all of the decadence happening around him, Travis begins to take matters into his own hands. This includes attempting to liberate a beautiful presidential campaign worker (Cybill Shepard) and freeing an underage prostitute (Jodie Foster) from a dangerous pimp (Harvey Keitel).
The 1970s was a big decade for the film industry. It was the era in which cinephiles refer to it as the New Hollywood. Influential films from this period defied the authority of the studio system. They explore themes of social values, political views, musical taste, dislike of sexual orientation, drug addiction, racism, respect for authority, and women's rights. Films like One Flew Over Coco’s Nest, The Godfather, and Network were very influential in that time period. Taxi Driver is no exception.
This movie came out at the right time for Martin Scorsese. During the early 70s, he had just made Mean Streets (1973) on a budget of $500,000. Being an independent film at the time, Scorsese had already shown flourishes as a filmmaker with this movie and Boxcar Bothra (1972) in the previous year. This was also his first collaboration with Robert De Niro in his first breakout role, painting the road of being the best director/actor duo in filmmaking history.
After Mean Streets, the two would later get attention at the Oscars next year. Scorsese’s film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) gained three nominations, including a win in Best Actress for Ellen Burstyn. Robert De Niro also gained an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974). So these two had already gained support from critics during that year.
So their second project together had a lot riding it. And boy did they succeed with that project because Taxi Driver was lightning in a bottle.
Story and Script
What makes Taxi Driver an enduring classic is its exploration of human decay. It explores the dark side of society and how humankind is ignorant of the violence around them. And that idea is communicated visually through its setting of New York City.
New York City has never looked scarier here. It’s dark, sleazy, scary, and frightening at the same time. Throughout the night, crime is dangerous in the city. Examples of this are people being beaten up at night and underage girls working in prostitution. New York City during the ’70s looked more dangerous than it was today.
Another key reason why Taxi Driver holds up really well is its script. It fleshes out its characters through their dialogue and actions. And with the narrative being focused on Tavis Bickle, his actions speak louder than words. But I think what makes him interesting is that his background is murky at best.
The audience knows that Bickle is a veteran of the Vietnam War. From his jacket and handling of firearms, his skills from the military are implied.
But when we get inside his head, our imagination does the work. Why does he watch x-rated films during the day? Why does he feel isolated from everyone else? He talks to his coworkers from time to time. But what’s stopping him from actually hanging out with them?
Even his experience in the military is murky. We know he fought in the war, but what did he feel when he was there? What did he witness over there that made him have psychological problems?
These are all interesting questions, but we are never given any clear answers to them. And it makes the film more interesting.
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The script is a perfect example of how less is more. Paul Schrader deserves for crafting this amazing narrative.
Robert De Niro’s performance in this movie is legendary. He looks and acts the part so perfectly that you forget about the actor playing the character. You see the character on screen. And what makes this role so captivating is that he is on the fine line between sympathetic and dangerous. This makes his descent into madness more involving as the film progresses.
Between this, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and all of the movies he has done with Scorsese, this might be one of his best performances to this day. And the line "You Talking To Me" still gets me.
You Talking To Me
Although this is Robert De Niro's film, the supporting cast deserves praise as well.
Jodie Foster is great as Iris. With this movie being her first major role at age 14, she pulls it off. Being an underage prostitute for a dangerous pimp couldn't be an easy role for a child actor, but thankfully Foster commits to it with subtlety. This made her performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Cybill Shepard is also good in this movie. Despite the fact that she looked really beautiful back then, she plays off her character really well.
Harvey Keitel is great as Sport, iris' pimp. The moment he shows up on the screen, you know he's up to no good. He's menacing and frightening without being too comical in his performance. And his dialogue alone makes his character more despicable.
If we take away the fantastic performances and sharp script, Taxi Driver is also a visually stunning movie right down to the technical aspects.
This movie had a budget of $1,300,000, a budget greater than Mean Streets. So with a bigger budget and more resources at his disposal, Martin Scorsese has been given more control over his film. And it really shows.
Whether it is a budget of $500,000 or $100 million, Scorsese is not the type of filmmaker who goes over budget. He knows what he's doing when he's behind the camera. His skills and trademarks are evident in the movies he directs.
With Taxi Driver, Scorsese's direction is slow and methodical. Given the dark story he's working from, he employs similar techniques like jump cuts and ellipses of Jean-Luc Godard, strong camera movements, and striking angles.
The cinematography by the late Michael Chapman is visually stunning. During the daytime, it feels less glamorous and eerier given its dark subject.
When it's night, the photography really shines with its use of lighting and color. In the streets where Travis Bickle is driving passengers, most of the alleyways are covered in shadows with only the street lights showing, making the city feel much more dangerous as the story progresses. At the diner where Bickle and his friends are having a conversation outside, you can only see the red glowing logo and lights inside. You barely see what the restaurant looks like from the outside. All of these things make the world of Taxi Driver scary and unpredictable.
All of the elements of cinematography and editing build to the shootout in the climax of the film. In fact, I would rank this scene among one of the best shootouts in film history.
Taxi Driver is one of the greatest movies from the '70s and one of my favorite movies of all time. It's a classic film packed with terrific performances, a sharp script filled with dark themes, and fantastic direction make it one of the greatest movies of all time.
AFI (American Film Institution) Lists
- #22 on AFI's 100 YEARS...100 THRILLS
- #47 on AFI's 100 YEARS...100 MOVIES
Theodore Turnquest II (author) from Lakeland, Florida on April 13, 2021:
Thanks for the comment
Iqra from East County on April 13, 2021:
This is one of the greatest movies and your way to explain this story is too good.