“Are you talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here.”
It’s the second half of the quote that never gets quoted, yet it is the film’s truest line. Travis Bickle, our “hero” in Taxi Driver, struggles to find a connection with anything or anyone. He exists in his own world and navigates ours with stubborn cynicism. He views the world as dark and hopeless place but never does he try to find the light. The film unfolds as a series of Travis’ failed attempts at connecting, with each attempt going horribly sour. He attempts to converse with fellow taxi drivers, only bringing up the misery in life. He asks a girl out on a date and ends up taking her to a porno film. He meets a political candidate in his taxi but only manages to startle him. He tries to befriend a child prostitute and frightens her away. When he asks himself in the mirror, “Who you talkin’ to?”, it is cold and unnatural. He is so lonely that he doesn’t even know how to emulate a normal human conversation.
It is this utter loneliness that lies at the core of Taxi Driver. The film is not a glorified examination of a psychopath, but the tragic study of a painfully desperate and lost soul. A lot of the film’s power comes from the sympathy we have for Travis, even if he appears to be such an alienating character. We have all felt as lonely and as confused as Travis, it’s just that we are better at dealing with it than he is. Robert de Niro communicates this perfectly through his performance, perhaps one of his best, as Travis. De Niro displays a masterful amount of control in his use of facial and body language, especially in the way he uses his eyes to communicate meaning. His stares can evoke what’s going on in Travis’ head, whether it be fear or disgust. When the film calls for him to be more aggressive, de Niro avoids the tendency to become bombastic. He acts with force but is still filled the reluctance of a man who barely understands the world. Such nuance is rare in a leading performance, especially in a Scorsese film.
On a filmmaking level, Taxi Driver is exceptional. The film utilizes a very intrusive and emotional style of filmmaking. For the most part, the camera looks out to the world through Travis. The opening sequence is hazy and in slow motion, exactly how Travis sees the world, as a murky and sinister place. There is plenty of light in the shot but the darkness is emphasized instead. Scorsese applies different levels of slow motion for different characters in order to portray varying degrees of heightened awareness. Most other characters perceive the world at its normal pace but for Travis the film slows down. His heightened awareness is made acute. He stares at pimps and hookers on the streets and we understand completely what he’s thinking. One of the hardest things to accomplish for a film director is being able to communicate a character’s interior thoughts without hokey dialogue or voiceovers. The film is also notable in its use of very abrupt pans, tilts and zooms. Whenever Travis gets irritated by something, the camera zooms in. It sharpens the discomfort we feel as an audience and it perfectly evokes how Travis feels. This is most notable in a scene at a diner. Travis drops a pill inside of a cup of water and it starts to fizz. Travis stares blankly as the camera zooms in on the cup for what feels like an eternity. The odd timing, the hissing sound and the claustrophobic zooming all come together to communicate one message as efficiently as possible. That is great filmmaking.
I could go on and on about the various intricacies in the film’s remarkable direction, cinematography and editing but the point is that Taxi Driver is truly a film. The film doesn’t just use words but emotions, thoughts and visuals that leap the bounds of space and time in order to convey meaning. Through that sort of a mindset, the film’s polarizing ending makes some sense. Was the ending real or was it just a fantasy scene? Can it be understood as truth? We don’t have answers to these questions and that’s because they are the wrong questions to be asking. The film ends on a philosophical and emotional note, not a literal one. It plays out like a piece of music rather than a novel. It doesn’t matter whether or not Travis’ redemption is real. His mind shapes his reality, and if that’s what he thinks, then in some sense he has found inner peace. And thus finishes one of the greatest films in American cinema. A+