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Taxi Driver

Reviewed By The Ultimate Dancing Machine
Posted 06/09/02 16:42:34

"'I believe that one should become a person like other people'"
5 stars (Awesome)

"I'm God's lonely man," he says, and from the way he's always glancing away from people, or staring at them just a little too hard, you know he really believes it. He works twelve-hour days, sometimes longer, as a New York taxi driver, trying to take his mind off a secret pain that we, the audience, never quite glimpse. You never learn what's bugging this man, though you get suggestions here and there. Perhaps his troubles started during his stint in Vietnam--a backstory hinted at but never made explicit in the film--but then why does he say he's been lonely his whole life?

It is in part this ambiguity that makes Travis Bickle such a vivid character: Taxi Driver does not wallow in pop psychology, will not settle for cheap explanations. Bickle eludes understanding, but all the same he seems frighteningly real. And, in fact, he is: Very few films so disorientingly obscure the line between reality and fiction. Travis Bickles appear regularly on the evening news: men like Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, both of whom went around the bend after they, like Bickle, were rejected by women they admired; or those all-too-common crazed gunmen, who like Bickle ("I work for the government," he likes to say) tend to be fascinated by authority figures.

It's a tribute to Robert De Niro's skill as an actor that you don't really seem him up on the screen; he disappears into his role, an achievement far less common than you might think. For the most part, actors depend on their carefully tended image for their on-screen presence. Tom Cruise is invariably Tom Cruise, and for better or worse, all those tabloid rumors about his sexual preference really do affect your perceptions of him in whatever role he plays. You probably don't remember the name of the character he played in, say, A Few Good Men, but who has ever forgotten the unmistakably abrasive name Travis Bickle?

The plot is Crime and Punishment by way of Bresson's Pickpocket: a troubled, anti-social man seeking redemption becomes fascinated by a "fallen" woman. But screenwriter Paul Schrader, daringly, reversed the plot: where the other two works end in peace and reconciliation, Taxi Driver climaxes in terrible bloodshed, its protagonist misguidedly attempting to shoot his way to Paradise. It's what the historian Richard Slotkin called regeneration through violence, an unhappily durable trend in the American psyche.

Taxi Driver rests on the enigma of Travis Bickle--who, exactly, is this man? He rails against the sleazy milieu he lives in, but he's fascinated by cheap porn movies. When he insists on taking Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to one, he wrecks their relationship, and thus begins the downward spiral. A foolish act--but Schrader has suggested, tantilizingly, that Bickle wants to alienate Betsy: he needs a reason to go off on his mad rampage, the germ of which has existed in his mind since the beginning of the movie. "Someday a real rain will come and wipe this scum off the streets"--it's a self-fulfulling prophecy, but realizing that makes Bickle hardly less mysterious.

It's a film with no real answers, which ends on an uneasily ambiguous note. Perhaps no one involved with it was ever better than they were here--not Scorsese, not Schrader, not De Niro. And it may be the film for which they will all be remembered.

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