Many may regard Goodfellas as Martin Scorsese’s finest film (while a great film, I personally find the film slightly overrated), however I find Taxi Driver to be one of the best films he’s done. Travis Bickle may be one of the best antiheroes on film, played so brilliantly by Robert De Niro, that we’re not sure if we should feel sorry for him or be repulsed. It’s and excellent example of subtly which is all but lost in most modern films.
Following the Vietnam War, Travis Bickle struggles with insomnia and depression, taking on a job as a taxi driver at night to help pass the time. Bickle has become obsessed with disparity of the city, hating the trash and sleaze of the inhabitant therein and hoping for a great purge to come through and clean it up. Meanwhile, he becomes smitten with Betsy, a campaign organizer, and much reluctance, is finally able to convince her to go on a date with him. He naively takes her to a porn film, afterwards not understanding why Betsy is disgusted and upset with him. Having been turned down, Bickle’s thoughts soon turn violent as he begins a physical purge of his body in preparation of purging the city from it’s uncleanliness. It is during this time that he comes across Iris (a very young Jodi Foster) who is a prostitute on the streets. It becomes his mission to rescue Iris from her plight, who which, he soon learns, doesn’t want to be rescued. Thus, as Bickle’s thoughts become more disturbed, he sets out on a suicide mission to save the soul of Iris from the corruption and filth of New York City.
What is there to say about Taxi Driver that hasn’t already been said? After Raging Bull, this is De Niro’s best performance. He escapes into the role, bringing to life a disturbed, yet sympathetic character. His interactions with Betsy are awkward, as if Bickle isn’t aware of certain social faux pas. Yet his earnestness to safe Iris from a life of despair is both disturbing and noble. Whether his experiences in the Vietnam war have affected him, or if it’s mental illness isn’t really explained, nor does it have to be. Bickle’s duality is interesting, both wanting to purge the city, and yet save the inhabitants within. Much like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God wishes to destroy the city but is convinced by Lot to save one family, Bickle wants to play the role of both Lot and God- savior and destroyer. And so, Bickle saves his one inhabitant who is still young enough to be pure of heart; cleaning the city of it’s filth as he does so. It’s no wonder that Bickle is seen as a hero at the end, even garnering the recognition of Betsy, who confronts Bickle in his cab one last time.
The way that Scorsese is able to capture the city, in turn making it it’s own character, is equally fascinating. The city comes alive at night, feeding into Bickle’s psychosis, as if daring him to do something. He roams the streets, the city’s veins, like some sort of super-drug, in hopes that he can heal the city of it’s sickness. By far the greatest element of Taxi Driver is Bernard Herrmann’s score. Just like Travis Bickle, the score feels schizophrenic, going from jazzy and melancholic to dark and bombastic, highlighting Bickles duality between social awkwardness and disturbing psychological thinking. This was Bernard Hermann’s last score, and while not as recognizable as Psycho or North by Northwest, may possibly be his best. His contribution helped bring alive Scorsese’s film, adding to the complexity of De Niro’s character as well as bringing the city to life. Taxi Driver may not be my favorite Scorsese film (I equally love Casino and The Aviator), but I do think it’s one his best films.