Surprises in Taxi Driver

Jun 13th, 2011

Despite their renown, some famous films are able to surprise new generations of filmgoers. A first-time viewer of The Graduate might only know of the character of Mrs. Robinson, familiar from the Simon and Garfunkel song written specifically for the film. The name and song have also been used as shorthand in other movies involving relationships between younger men and older women: My Brother is an Only Child (Daniele Luchetti, 2007), or American Pie (Paul Weitz, 1999), for example. For Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), it is the iconic image of Robert De Niro in the driver’s seat of the cab, and above all the famous line, ‘You talkin’ to me?’. Unlike Mrs. Robinson, though, these elements give little clue to the film’s content. A romance between people of different ages offers a clear story premise. But faced with a cocky cabbie, the viewer can’t predict where the narrative will go. This element of unpredictability in Taxi Driver is essential, though, and makes the film stand out from mainstream Hollywood cinema.


Compared with The Graduate, Taxi Driver feels slow-moving. Both films centre on young men at the cusp of maturity: taxi driver Travis, though five years older than The Graduate‘s Benjamin, has not yet assumed his role as an adult with a sense of responsibility to wider society. Initially, Travis is only concerned with looking after himself. Both Travis and Benjamin also have an interest in women of widely differing ages, though neither man has much experience with the opposite sex.


In my last blog, I noted that the characters in The Graduate are psychologically interesting: the audience will naturally wonder what motivates them to act the way they do. The film does not belabour psychology, though: what the characters are thinking is revealed a little through dialogue, and a lot through action, and it is the latter that is given primacy. In Taxi Driver, psychology takes on a more ominous weight: it feels like something that could set the action rolling out of control at any minute. Travis may be a time bomb: as the audience waits to see when (or whether) he will explode, the real action is saved for the film’s final 15 minutes.


Even though psychology is so important to Taxi Driver, we know surprisingly little about Travis and his inner world. At the start of the film, when he applies to work the night shift, we learn his age (26), that he used to be a marine, and that he is an insomniac. The film also incorporates letters and diary entries, a common device for divulging characters’ thoughts, especially secret ones. Yet Travis’s diary entries are relatively sparse, and his letters reveal little that we don’t already know—and sometimes they contain obvious lies. We learn a little more from his conversations, but Travis is mainly a solitary, taciturn character with an impassive or brooding gaze on the world. For most of the film, audience stays at Travis’s side, so in a sense we see the world through his eyes. Yet because he is so uncommunicative, it is hard to know what to think of him, and there are few opportunities to hear what the film’s other characters think about him either.


We learn most about Travis from his actions: what he does and, importantly, doesn’t do. At the beginning of the film, he is only concerned with working and earning money, and appears stubbornly disengaged from the world around him. One of few taxi drivers willing to drive through any part of New York at any time of the night, Travis sees a lot of illicit goings-on, but never becomes involved, verbally or physically: he just takes his money and minds his own business.


There are certain signs that Travis does not accept the crimes that he witnesses, though. One day, an underage prostitute scrambles into his cab, but before he can drive her anywhere, she is dragged out again by a pimp who tosses Travis a crumpled $20 bill to buy his silence. Travis’s failure to intervene implies that he doesn’t care, but the fact that he never spends the crumpled bill proves that the event has troubled him, and he makes amends spectacularly at the end of the film.


Travis also clearly states his attitude to criminality in general. In an early letter to his parents, he says that he is happy to see the rain wash the dirt and garbage off the pavement. Soon after, he extends the metaphor, expressing his desire to see the dregs of society flushed from the streets of New York. Though it is reassuring to know that he cares, Travis’s words don’t just reflect concern for safe neighbourhoods: they also contain a rather unsettling hatred for a certain class of people. Moreover, Travis himself is not as strait-laced as he seems: he is a regular patron of the city’s porn cinemas, and clueless enough to take an angelic young woman there for their second date. Moreover, when she doesn’t want to see him again, he turns up at her workplace to make a scene, and nearly gets into a fistfight with one of her colleagues.


One night, a bizarre client (a cameo by Scorsese) asks Travis to pull over and leave the meter running: he explains that he is watching his adulterous wife at the window of another man’s apartment, and describes in sadistic detail how he plans to shoot her in revenge. Not long after, Travis buys a small arsenal, even though he has never wanted to carry a gun in his taxi for self-defence. The weapons become his new hobby, and he begins to loiter on the edges of rallies for the presidential candidate. Is he there to see the female campaign worker who rejected him? Is he thinking of assassinating the politician, or shooting the girl, for revenge? He identifies a secret service agent in the crowd, and starts a conversation with him. If it weren’t for the fact that he lies to the agent, you might almost believe that Travis is genuinely interested joining the organisation—this would be a more constructive way for Travis to employ his weapons expertise (indeed, modern audiences might see him as a youthful version of Jack Byrnes from Meet the Parents).


Travis’s bitter alienation is in part an understandable effect of urban living, especially for an awkward young man. Ideally, he should have a social life: a support network of friends to confide in and have fun with. Deprived of this resource, Travis’s vigour has nowhere to go: he is so full of energy that he’s unable to sleep, but his sedentary job offers no real way to spend it. There is a sense that Travis’s youthful vitality could go either way: depending on where it is channelled, there is an equal chance for it to do good or spread destruction. From Travis’s statements about human trash, to his assistance in brutally turning the tables on an armed robber, Taxi Driver explores the grey areas between kindness and cruelty. One of the biggest surprises in this film is that it manages to squeeze a happy ending out of a story where so many signs pointed to tragedy. Yet this happy ending is one of the few recognisable Hollywood elements to an otherwise unusual film. You could say that the biggest surprise of Taxi Driver is its popularity, given that it conforms so little to mainstream standards. But it is unfair to underestimate audiences, who are not so much opposed to variety as typically deprived of the option.



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