A mentally unstable veteran works as a nighttime taxi driver in New York City, where the perceived decadence and sleaze fuels his urge for violent action by attempting to liberate a presidential campaign worker and an underage prostitute.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so engrossed in a film while simultaneously being incredibly uncomfortable in my entire life. And I’m sure that is exactly what Martin Scorsese intended.
It’s very clear that a lot of thought went into this film right from the beginning. We start off the film with a close up of our main character’s eyes. This, right away, attaches the viewer to the character of Travis Bickle, whether we want to be attached to him or not. A genius moment in this opening sequence comes from a shot of the front end of the taxi while it is moving. The car drives by a neon sign that reads “Fascination”, and that’s exactly what this film is: we are fascinated by Travis and the life he leads and the demons inside his head. We may not particularly care for him, but that does not matter. He’s the main character. It’s a lot like a train wreck: you know you should look away, but you just can’t.
In fact, that’s exactly what the camera does in this film. In a genius move by Scorsese, during the phone call Travis makes to Betsy after their horrendous movie experience, the camera pans over to a view of the empty hallway. We can still hear Travis’s conversation, but it’s all so shameful and uncomfortable that even the camera cannot bare to look. I would say that this is the moment in the film where the tone takes a turn. Up until this point, Travis doesn’t seem like a terribly horrible person. Sure, there are some red flags but, all in all, he seems fine as long as he doesn’t act on his impulses. From this point, however, the entire film takes a tone of shame and embarrassment, on the part of the viewer. You can feel it emanating from the screen. But you still don’t look away.
There are some truly chilling moments in this film. One of the more horrifying and uneasy moments is Travis Bickle exercising after purchasing a number of guns. That visual with the thoughts of Bickle overlaid create a truly terrifying moment. One of the most famous moments in the film is also one of the more terrifying, as well. Bickle practices with the guns in the mirror, talking to himself. He really begins to become unhinged in a major way. And we, the viewer, can’t do a thing to stop it. We just have to watch it happen.
Another genius moment with the camera in this film is the last time Travis Bickle is at the shooting range. The camera shows his face in a square, cutting between his face and the target he is shooting. Each time the camera cuts back to Bickle’s face, the camera is further and further away. Bickle is shown in less and less light. This effectively disassociates the viewer from Bickle, for he is about to commit the most heinous act yet. And, that’s not something that we should be connected to.
All the acting in this film is good. I can’t recall a single performance that is weaker than another. Truly impressive is the performance of a 14-year-old Jodie Foster as an underage hooker that Travis Bickle seems to care about. Harvey Keitel and Peter Boyle give wonderful performances, as well. The tops, however, is Robert DeNiro. He does a phenomenal job at keeping the viewer on edge with Bickle, and he fully becomes that character. You forget that you’re watching Robert DeNiro.
The amount of detail put into each and every scene is incredible. The overhead shots used really give us detail with each scene. And, it’s honestly the little touches that make this film. For instance, when we are introduced to Harvey Keitel’s character of Sport, the pimp to young Iris (Jodie Foster), one of the first details I noticed was that his pinky nail on his right hand was the only long one. It was painted red. It’s clear that this is a cocaine nail. And, if I remember right, we never see him do such a drug. But that’s what that nail is there for and it gives us more insight to his character, even with the limited screen time. It truly is incredible.
The very end of the film is chilling. Bickle, after shooting up the brothel, mimics putting a gun to his head. He’s then revered as a hero for “saving” young Iris from a life of prostitution, when in reality he was giving into the rage he felt in the only way he knew how: by killing.
This truly is an astonishing film. From the incredible shots of the reflection of neon lights on the wet New York City streets, to the writing that makes you cringe but keeps you intrigued, to the use of red light throughout the film, to the final overhead shot of the room that Travis Bickle has just shot up, I could somehow watch this film again and again.