Top 250 Tuesday #032 – Taxi Driver (1976)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #006 on the list, Martin Scorceses Taxi Driver. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.

td1Confession time: I’m 49 years old, I’ve been watching movies all my life and writing about them in various venues for years, and yet somehow, in all that time, until now I’ve never actually sat down and watched Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver.

Yeah, I know. “Bad on ya, movie moose!”

I’m really not sure how it happened. It’s one of those legendary movies. It’s infinitely quotable, full of scenes that everyone knows by heart, and it features two of the screen’s greats, Scorcese and Robert De Niro at the height of their skills, and it’s from a time period that produced some of my favorite movies. It’s also a movie that since its release has become both famous and infamous, in part at least due to the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan by John Hinkley, and the role that the film featured in his defense.

In short, approaching the film for the first time, with all of its accumulated baggage, can be quite intimidating, and perhaps that’s why I’ve put it off for so long. Of course, that’s also what makes writing about it a tricky prospect. Nonetheless, I determined, going into this particular exercise to attempt to approach it much as I would any other new-to-me movie, and try to simply react to the film itself, and not to all the rest.

So… with all of that said, let’s  proceed, shall we?

td5Taxi Driver is the story of Travis Bickle, a Vietnam War veteran who, like many vets at the time, is finding it hard to fit back into modern society. Something of a loose cannon, suffering from what today we would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bickle is having trouble sleeping and decides to take on a night job driving a cab around New York city, picking up anyone and everyone and taking them wherever they want to go. He claims to make no differentiation between high or low class fares, nor does he claim to mind going into some of the worst parts of the city, areas other cabbies seek to avoid, especially at night.

As a matter of fact, one gets the feeling that for Bickle the worse an area is, the more he really wants to go there. It’s as though driving is simply a metaphor for Bickle’s own search for something. Trouble? Death? Or perhaps a way to redeem himself. Maybe Bickle is a man looking for a way to reclaim a lost part of his soul?

Actually, it’s doubtful that even he could really answer that question. And that is something that remains true all the way through to the end of the film.

td4Because this is not a film about redemption. This is not a film about a man who ultimately finds that missing piece of himself that was left on the battlefield, Travis Bickle is not a man who is ever going to ultimately find any kind of peace. No, that would be too pat a resolution both for screenwriter Paul Schrader and for director Scorcese. It’s also the type of ending which, while it might have been seen as necessary for an earlier audience or even for most audiences today, simply did not fit into the turbulence of its time when so many were struggling to make sense both of their own lives and of the world around them.

td3To provide such an answer, to provide Bickle with even a bit of soul-cleansing, no matter what he ultimately goes through, would have made this film much less than what it turned out to be, and would, in the eyes of so many who were suffering the same sort of trauma as our protagonist, have made the film not only a lie, but a much less satisfying experience for its audience.

Beyond all of that, what else can one say? Well, a lot, obviously. This is a film that features an absolutely mesmerizing performance by De Niro. Scorcese brings an incredible amount of creativity and power to his directing choices, and Schrader has given them a top notch script that completely delivers. But of course all of that has been said and expounded upon in many other places, and if I wrote more, all I would be doing is repeating what has come before.

So, instead, I think I’ll simply say that I’m glad that, after all this time, I finally hopped into that cab with Travis Bickle. Because Taxi Driver is certainly one hell of a good ride.

So what are your thoughts on Taxi Driver? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Also, I’m curious about what you think about my argument that some movies simply have to be seen on the big screen before one can even really judge them. And if you agree with it, what films you would put into that category. Let me know in the comments below.

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