Taxi Driver In Depth Review
by Bret Dorman
Fade in to a NY Street, a yellow cab emerges from a cloud of smoke. A mysterious, dreamy entrance for the title character. But lets not romanticize the entrance just yet… the smoke is coming from a manhole, the sewers, the filth.
Fast Forward one hour and fifty three minutes. Travis drives around, New York’s streets at night in the background as the credits ‘roll’. So what? The movie bookends itself with shots of the street from the cab’s point of view.
Okay. Let’s widen our scope just a tad. The first fifteen minutes introduces us to a lone, disturbed, and disgruntled man with a ton of voice over. He’s clearly disgusted by the people who surround him. The last twenty minutes is one of cinema’s most impactful shootouts. Our lone Taxi Driver is now a mohawk sporting near-Presidential Candidate Assassinator/Savior of a Teenage Hooker.
So you mean our solitary protagonist with adamant thoughts of how a “real rain” will come wash away the scum is a ‘psychopathic killer’? Much like the driving scenes that bookend the movie, this transformation seems pretty logical. Do we really need a full movie inbetween to show us how the main character got to be a killer?Taxi Driver isn’t just some thrill ride of how a New York cabbie just couldn’t take it anymore and decides to dispense his own brand of justice… off the meter! Its a step by step look at how loneliness, gone untreated and filtered through a young man’s hatred of the people that surround him, can have devastating consequences.
A complete scene by scene breakdown that ultimately gives us one of cinema’s most truthful characters.
TRAVIS GETS A JOB. If you’re going to have a movie called Taxi Driver, some character, hopefully the main one, will drive a taxi at some point. The movie wastes no time getting into the job… or defining Travis Bickle.
Without an establishing shot to let us know where we are, the best we get is Bickle walking into a room and some background chaos as he waits for his interview. As Travis is asked a set of normal questions, he tries to act as normal as possible, offering little jokes and small talk to his interviewer. After he smirks that his his Driver’s License is “clean, like [his] conscience” his interview tells him to cut out or walk out. The camera than pushes in on Travis, from a Medium Shot to a Medium Close Up. The closer the camera gets to Travis, the more we see the real him. From this point his answers are direct, to the point. Void of personality, Travis is no longer pretending to be normal, just being himself.
What saves his interview is when he mentions he is a former Marine. Luckily for him, so was the interviewer. In this moment the camera moves from the same shot it has been of the interview up the back to Travis, bringing them to them same level. Once they are on the same level, Travis is told to fill out some forms and check back tomorrow.
He leaves the office and the camera catches a glimpse of him looking out as it pans in the same direction of his glance. A long slow pan reveals the Taxi Cab HQ, a busy place during the daytime, full of movement and life. The camera catches back up with Travis, who seems to be waiting. As a little side note: I love the way he taps the one taxi as it enter the garage.
Travis exits the garage and begins his walk down the street. Without changing shots, we get a slow dissolve to Travis taking a sip from a drink. With that, we begin our long, slow dissolve into Travis’ mind, as it too dissolves into depression and pent up rage.The first scene immediately sets up Travis as a man without any real personality. This will come back later when asked about Presidential Candidate Palantine (and his stance on Welfare), his lack of knowledge of music, and his small talk with cabbies over a late night snack. Whenever confronted with an impromptu question to which he doesn’t have an answer, he simply avoids it and changes the subject. However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what a personality is or how to fake having one. His ‘cold call’ asking out of Betsy is inspired and intriguing enough to get a date. He understands what a joke is, but how robotically he spells “organizized” conveys that he doesn’t actually have a sense of humor himself.
In a sense, Travis is just as much an actor as the man playing him. There are parts where he will immediately adopt the behavior of those around his (crossing his arms like the secret service man or the way he slaps his boots and says “I’m clean” the way Matthew does as well). DeNiro doesn’t have it easy in this movie either. A good chunk of his screen time is him alone. And when he is in conversation, he has to skirt that fine line of having something a little bit off about him but normal enough to not freak anyone out. He is, at first glance, an average man. The voice over lets the viewer in from the start (after he gets the job) to cue us in before the supporting characters, that there is much more going on underneath the surface. DeNiro nails the rhythms of his voice over narration/journal entries. Its done with such a genuine warmth when discussing ‘the scum’, even if you don’t agree with what he is saying you can understand where he is coming from. Travis Bickle may not be a likable character for many, but he is definitely intriguing.
DeNiro’s performance has many subtleties, the shining example of which is when he is talking to The Wizard about how he is feeling. Travis isn’t a man who seeks advice or is good at expressing himself, but he has a lot of that pent up rage looking for an outlet. His primary form of communication about these feelings are his journal entries, but rarely with a live person. Having just been in the taxi with a crazy man who talks about killing his wife with a .44 Magnum, Bickle knows if he talks about his true feelings, Wizard would look at him like he was crazy like Bickle did with his passenger. He is torn between venting and not looking like a freak. DeNiro’s eyes are filled almost to the brink of tears as he nervously looks around and hesitates.
Peter Boyle compliments DeNiro by freely expressing his feelings. Whether it be in the restaurant or with Bickle one on one; his character openly talks about his feelings even if they doesn’t make sense. The key to the supporting roles of Taxi Driver are in how they compliment Bickle/DeNiro. Cybill Shepherd is obviously attractive, but her strength as Betsy comes from being a sharp, flirtatious character who is willing to give Bickle a chance or two, even if its just out of curiosity. Stephen Prince and Harvey Keitel are like poets in the way their characters, Traveling Salesman Easy Andy and Matthew the Pimp, speak about their respective trades. Jodie Foster, young ‘sweet’ Iris, as crazy as she is holds her own in a conversation with Bickle over breakfast. She even seems a little too good at talking people down and getting them to ‘make it’, like she is a seasoned pro.The stand out supporting role comes from Albert Brooks as Tom, the affable ‘sidekick’/guy stuck in the ‘friend zone’/’coworker zone’ with Betsy. His role is literally to give Betsy someone to talk to so she isn’t just a pretty face. Between his conversation about underlined words on a box of buttons and the importance of emphasis, his quick reasoning as to why a canary is placed on a stool instead of a pigeon, and the way he says “I love you” to Betsy who isn’t phased at all, Brooks is the definition of ‘comic relief’ in a movie that is for the most part bleak and depressing.
TRAVIS AND BETSY GET SOME COFFEE AND PIE. The two talk about work, coworkers (Tom), and getting ‘organizized’. The VO before they even reach the coffee shop highlights how Travis thinks his selection of “black coffee and apple pie, with a slice of yellow melted cheese” was a good choice. He is aware on a conscious level that his food selections say something about him and he wants to put his best foot forward.
As the two talk over their ‘lunch’, the camera reveals a lot about what’s really going on. In the two shot of them at the table, there is a divider between them (the panel in the form of the window pane). The Over the Shoulder Shot from Travis’ side to Betsy’s is standard, showing a little of Travis himself, bringing him into the frame with her. However, from Betsy’s side, she is not in the shot, it is just Travis alone. Even when in a real, engaging conversation with another human being, on a flirtatious level, Scorsese manages to isolate Travis.
This changes slightly when Travis asks for a second date, a movie date. Betsy pauses in a moment of genuine human tension as you don’t know what she is going to do, or even should do. Perhaps this is what Travis needs to straighten out? Betsy says “[long beat]… … … Sure [without skipping a beat] you know who you remind me of?” (love the long pause, agreeing to the date but immediately offsetting it by changing the conversation.) As Betsy explains who Kris Kristofferson is and rattles of his lyrics, the camera tightens in on the two. Like the opening shot, the closer the camera is to the characters, the more we see who they really are. Travis’ side of the OVS shot now has some of Betsy in it (since she has agreed to the second date, so their connection is guaranteed at least once more), but his character reveals he does not know who Kristofferson is or that he is a ‘pusher’. Betsy’s close(r) up reveals exactly how sharp she is by being able to peg him as a ‘walking contradiction’.
This scene is but one example. I could go into how virtually every shot has a purpose like these ones in the coffee shop, but I won’t. It took several viewings and note taking sessions to observe these shots, but their compositions and movements all say something.One shot in particular that drove me nuts the first couple of times watching this movie was when Travis pours his Alka-Seltzer tablet into his water in the first Cafeteria Scene. The shot not only lingers on the glass, but pushes in uncomfortably close. Why? Scorsese must have included this for a reason. Upon watching this part over and over and trying to understand the motivations behind Scorsese, it becomes clear. The camera lingers on the glass, as the tablet dissolves into the water and much like the dissolve at the beginning, as he exits the garage, this reflects how Travis’ own mind is slowly falling apart. The camera pushes in uncomfortably close much like how the entire movie is the viewer being uncomfortably close to Travis himself.
Scorsese displays an incredible amount of skill behind the camera, especially for being relatively young and ‘inexperienced’ at the time. On the other hand, Bernard Herrmann, a Hollywood veteran, lends his talents as the composer of the films minimalist score. Herrmann helps set the mood for some scenes, yet the two biggest ‘pieces’ of music he sets up are the ‘Militaristic’ drum beat with the haunting violin for whenever Travis is doing anything that later ties to his would-be final moments.
The other main piece is the “Jazzy” saxophone driven piece that highlights the romantic aspects of the movie. Whether it be Travis driving around at night, Betsy’s stationary slow motion entrance into Palantine HQ (juxtaposed brilliantly beforehand by a bunch of handheld shots moving through the street), or Sport’s Barry White-esque dance with Iris, Herrmann’s score pulls us in and ties these romances together.
TRAVIS AND BETSY GO TO ‘A MOVIE’ /THE PHONE CALL. On the way to the movie, Travis and Betsy pass by a weird guy playing a drum set on a street corner. New York is filled with some crazy people, am I right? Some of these crazy people are playing drums on the sidewalk. Some are seemingly normal people out with attractive ladies. Nice props to Travis though for buying Betsy a Kristofferson album and, again, trying to secure the next date by mentioning he can’t listen to it because his record player is broken.
Its no surprise that Betsy is turned off and leaves the theater, Travis in hot pursuit. Upon their exit the camera is centered not on the actors, but the door’s hinges, so that as they walk the mirror wall on the outside balances out the action. The camera pans and follows as they pass. Betsy gets in a taxi and leaves Bickle alone. (One of Bickle’s funniest moments comes from his line “I got a taxi!” as he leaves, frustrated.)
This scene is interesting, mostly because people would ask, “Well why does Travis take Betsy to a porno to begin with? What was he expecting?” Simply put… he was expecting her to leave.Writer Paul Schrader notes in an interview that Taxi Driver isn’t about loneliness. Loneliness is not part of human nature. Rather, Taxi Driver is about the pathology of loneliness and how people make themselves lonely, even if its through unexplained/subconscience actions. This is basically the key to understanding most of the motivations for Travis Bickle and why he is the way he is.
Bickle sets up scenarios for himself to fail and to be lonely. He takes Betsy on a date to a porno, he lives alone and cuts off communication with his parents, and he drives a taxi around at night, in the places he despises the most.
The pathology of loneliness is a part of what makes his character a contradiction. The movie is not subtle or shy about having one of its characters point this out. Bickle is obsessed with having his streets washed away by a ‘real rain’ and gets headaches from the stench of the streets, but he is willing to take anyone as a cab fare and go “anywhere… it don’t make no difference to [him].” Bickle sees most people as sick and venial, yet he frequents adult porn shops. He explicitly states there will be “no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of [his] body…. every muscle must be tight.” Yet he still continues to take pills and drink beer.
Similarly to the Betsy date, Travis even tries to flirt with a girl at the porno theater before being told off. If Travis at least makes an attempt to hit on these women and take them places he knows they won’t enjoy, then he can have someone to blame for his being alone. On the other hand, the one person he opens up to the most honestly and doesn’t want to push away, is Iris. Except that she is too young for him and he doesn’t want her anyway.
The absolute perfect example of this, one of the best shots in the history of movies, comes from the shot of Travis on the phone (love the composition of the three phones) with Betsy as he tries to reason for her as to why she left. His conversation alone is enough to turn anyone off as he doesn’t take direct responsibility for what happened, putting the blame on her or other forces. The camera then, unexpectedly and for seemingly no reason moves out to the hallway while Travis continues to talk. Why would the camera do this? Ideally, your camera should be invisible and only be motivated to move by (primarily) external forces such as a character walking or internal forces such as a zoom to emphasize importance or emotions. This is not an external movement. Travis does eventually go to where the camera did, but the camera moves prematurely. So then why? What’s the internal motivation? Like the way Travis (sub)consciously makes his life lonely, the camera moves out to show that Travis knows what he is doing is futile. He knows Betsy is done with him. He’s known this was going to happen when he first walked in that door to ask her out. She could have turned him down then but she didn’t. The camera moves from a shot of Travis in the foreground to a long empty hallway, alluding to how Travis has set up his life. He internally is making the moves to make sure that his future is empty like this hallway, which looks down into the street, where the ‘normal’ people are, creating that distance between him and them.
PRACTICE MAKES ‘PERFECT’. There’s a moment of tension when Travis is shopping for guns when he is holding the snub nose, aiming it out the window. The camera follows from just behind the gun as it tracks across, finally resting on a couple of people outside. The gun isn’t loaded, there is no real danger, but if Travis pulls the trigger it shows that he isn’t just a man of talk, but a man of action. That he wants to do something “real bad”.Story wise, there is a chance that Travis is just buying guns for self defense. I mean, four is definitely overkill, but other cabbies have said they own guns and Travis has encountered crazy, unpredictable fares. It doesn’t take long though before Bickle declares his real intent. One of the film’s most horrifying moments doesn’t come from its explicit violence (as horrific as that is, especially the shop owner beating the dead robber), but from Bickle’s simple phrasing of how he has decided to make a difference and act out his fantasies… with “True Force”.
Even if you haven’t seen Taxi Driver you probably know the line “You talkin’ to me?” In an improvised moment, Scorsese let the cameras roll and DeNiro was given a moment to just play in front of a mirror, with his mini arsenal ‘at hand’. This film is filled with some great lines, most of which coming from Bickle’s voice over. Its hard to memorize those lines and some of them definitely are Not Safe For Work. “You talkin’ to me?” is not only simple and easy, but its applicable to a bunch of real life scenarios (and good for a chuckle). Yet I don’t think its the wording of the actual phrase that has made it so iconic, but the fact that when you say “You talkin’ to me?” you are invoking the badass psychopathic mentality of Bickle and complete control of DeNiro over his art form. You aren’t saying “You talkin’ to me?”, you are saying “I am crazy. Don’t mess with me or I will mess you up.”
The long segments of Travis practicing and preparing (gunslide, taping the knife, engraving the bullet) might seem like overdoing at first, but its this ritualistic fetishization on part of the character that shows how serious he is and on the part of the filmmakers to show their complete control over their art form. This is why the shot of the Alka-Seltzer works. We are in this apartment, uncomfortably close to this man who is preparing for an undeclared war against the people he has deemed as morally lower than him, while he himself has questionable morals.
Its rare that a movie will allow itself enough time to have these kind of scenes. They serve no purpose to the story (well, not the amount of time spent on them). They are instead, more about developing the character. This isn’t a plot driven movie. As stated before the distance between Point A (the beginning) and Point B (the end) is pretty small. Its not about how far they can bring this character, but showing every aspect along the way.
In those terms, the pacing and structure of the movie are done outside the normal formula and conventions. If this movie is divided into two halves; the first half could be described as the Betsy Story, where Travis sets up and sulks in his self made loneliness and depression. Iris is only given two scenes in this half. Her failed getaway and when Travis almost hits her with the cab. The second half starts as Travis buys his guns. Then the movie becomes about him accepting his path, that his “whole life has been pointing in one direction.. that there never has been any choice” for him. In this half, Betsy only gets a few moments.
Between the two ladies of Travis’ life, there are some similarities. Travis wants to help both and ultimately wants to kill the idol or (incestuously?) father figure of both. He stalks Betsy both before and after their coffee and movie date and the way he confronts Iris for the first time has him stalking her in the same manner.
The movie, structurally, builds in a way that it can not go back. As Travis internally fantasizes about the “real rain”, the moment he tells someone (that someone coincidentally being Presidential Candidate Palantine) how he feels he realizes how good it feels to verbally express oneself to another person. The next moment he tells someone how he feels is a more tense and insightful look at to who he really is, this being the scene where he confronts Betsy, screaming to her she will “die in hell like the rest of them!” The first moment he kills someone is not because he wanted to, but another coincidence as he was in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time. From this moment you can see his frustration (as he knocks over his tv, gun in hand) and is ready to go out and do it again. He botches his attempt on Palantine but immediately goes to Plan B. In both cases, he has already scouted ahead (his conversation with the Secret Service man and his ‘fifteen minutes’ with Iris).
It almost seems unreal that in the end, this movie is just under two hours. I know to some people it will seem ‘longer’ (and they won’t mean that as a compliment) but really, for how much Schrader fits in to this narrative while still having time to explore the street of NY at night and Travis prepping in his apartment is a great achievement. The whole movie is carefully and slowly building to the final twenty minutes…
THE BLOODY ‘CONCLUSION’. As Palatine is delivering one of his big speeches (his posture mirroring the statue behind him), the camera trucks to the right, past a crowd of onlookers, to a lone figure in the back. He reaches into his pocket, gets out some pills, and the camera follows up and he pops them into his mouth. This figure is Travis bickle. Only now he is almost completely unrecognizable. sporting a mohawk, he no longer needs to try to be normal. He isn’t out trying to get a job or impress a lady. He oddly stands back, watching Palantine, then smiles, then claps, almost as eerily robotic as when he earlier rattled off the spelling of ‘organizized’. We have all the background for why he would want to assassinate Palantine. He’s an outsider, he wants to make a difference, some sort of displaced anger at Betsy. It makes sense emotionally, but we just can’t accept it. We can’t believe our protagonist would do this. Even ‘anti-heroes’ in movies don’t do things like this. They still do the good thing, they just do it begrudgingly. Luckily, Bickle is spotted before he can complete the act.
A quick moment to regroup in his apartment and Bickle is back on the road. In a great one shot take, Bickle pulls up to Sport’s normal spot, exists, has a disjointed and awkward conversation with him before shooting him in the gut, walking off to the side and sitting down to soak the moment in, before going in to finish the job.
For the most part, the action occurs pretty fast and all in front of the camera, displayed for the viewer to see. Its not glamorized, but put out there ‘as is’. The shot from the upper corner of the hallway as Travis goes back to finish off Sport before walking past the now somewhat fingerless man is a perfect example at how action, when displayed like this, can be more effective than trying to be fancy and energetic. Herrmann’s score disappears and is replaced by a symphony of gunshots and screams.
The big moment where Travis gets to actually use his gunslide is followed by a shot of a man getting shot in the face. I’m a man who claps and cheers at the kind of gory, graphic violence like the kind found in movies such as Freddy Vs Jason; however, the moments in Taxi Driver like the fingers getting blown off, the knife through the hand, and the face shots, make me cringe. As Travis finally gets the Fingers Man against the wall, gun the the head, Iris scream “No! Don’t shoot him!” to which Travis immediately pulls the trigger and the wall behind him is splattered with blood. Travis may think he is being some sort of hero, but without prejudice the camera is willing to show Iris’ fear of the situation. Most movies have the ‘damsel in distress’ rush to the hero’s aid in a moment like this, but Iris did not ask for nor want this. This is Travis’ doing.Travis tiries unsuccessfully to turn the guns on himself before settling on the couch, waiting for the cops to show up. When they do, he brings his fingers up to his head to mimic a gun and in a truly iconic image ‘pulls the trigger’ a couple of times before setting it back down. Travis comes into the building and shoots his way to the top with the force of a human freight train. He is a man on a mission. Once that mission is complete and Iris is ‘safe’, he is ready to give up. He does not want to deal with the consequences or go through his loneliness again.
A beautiful tracking shot shows the carnage, frozen in time, before settling outside and fading away. The End? Not quite…
Seemingly out of place at the end comes some newspaper clippings and voice over from Iris’ father. They paint Travis as a hero. And to think, if he had a couple more seconds with Palantine he would have been a traitor to his country. Granted this idea is introduced in the very last minutes of the movie and seems out of place, but it fits well to book end the movie with Travis back in his taxi again. He’s back with his ‘buds’ and has one final conversation before living out the ‘if only she could see me now and I could show her how good I got it’ fantasy of clearing the meter and driving off into the night.
Everything seems normal, until one final musical sting and quick panicked glance into the rear view mirror alludes to the fact that Travis’ pathology of loneliness building up to his violent outrage is bound to happen again. If this movie builds from fantasy to acting it out as reality, how fitting to go back to the fantasy… only this time you can imagine the ‘reload’ time inbetween acting it out is significantly shorter.
IN CONCLUSION, even if you do not enjoy or particularly like Taxi Driver, one thing should be clear from watching it; the movie is made with with an extraordinary amount of skill, passion, and ‘truthiness’.The most impressive part, is that I watch a lot of movies. I study the good ones in depth like this. Even the bad ones I can see the strings of filmmaking at work. But with Taxi Driver, no matter how many times I watch and analyze the movie (has to be over 50 times by now…) I STILL can not remove myself from the storytelling (written and visual) and acting. I know I am watching a movie, that Paul Schrader wrote it, that Martin Scorsese directed it, and the Robert DeNiro is playing Travis Bickle. Obviously I can see why the movie works on a technical level.
All of that, everything I describe above, still doesn’t stop me from watching this movie and seeing Travis Bickle as a human being, a tragic vehicle for his self-impossed, explosive downfall that turns out to be a heroic news story.
Its hard to find a movie that while being so well made on this technical level, is also an organic experience that somehow relates to me, as a young man with some of the same feelings and tendencies as Bickle. The difference is I can watch this movie therapeutically or go out and be a real person amongst other real people. Loneliness is something that people have to deal with and its completely natural. The trick is to not get stuck in its pathology. Also, another trick is don’t be a Taxi Driver obsessed with hating scum but constantly surrounding himself by it. Also, another trick is don’t by guns and shoot people. Its a fantastic finish to a movie, but not so much in real life…
And with that, fellow cab fares, I clear my own meter. This has been something I’ve wanted to do and express for a long time. Now that I have, maybe I can actually sit back and enjoy a viewing of Taxi Driver without worrying that I’m not doing my part as a cinephile to express just how perfectly awesome it this movie is and how it’s a “True Force” in cinema.