Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"One day a rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets."

Throughout the history of cinema's encounters with the dark side of the American psyche, there has never been anyone quite like Travis Bickle. And yet Travis is an everyman, a nobody; we meet people with similar backgrounds and similar views all the time. He's a former soldier, honourably discharged, bearing scars of the sort polite people don't ask about. He's out of work, he can't sleep, so he spends his days in porn cinemas and takes up a job as a taxi driver by night. This brings him into contact with the city at its ugliest. It's New York, and it's every city, Scorsese has said. Travis is seething with prejudice and paranoia. The city feeds his fury. Something is growing inside him, something dangerous.

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In many ways Taxi Driver is the last of the great films noirs, crossing over into cinema verité without sacrificing either style or tone. Perhaps Travis is a fall guy looking for a femme fatale, but Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the object of his desires, is revolted by his bleak existence. Hers is a world off hope, of joyous optimism, as she campaigns passionately for would-be senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). Here is a Kennedy figure, an icon of the American Dream, a figure who almost reaches Travis too, but not quite; and when he can't fulfil his promise, again that anger grows. Enter Iris (Jodie Foster), whose profession as a prostitute makes her the perfect icon of helplessness, whose youth (she is only ten) makes it easy for Travis to project onto her pretty much anything he likes. Obsessed with saving her, he gradually loses sight of everything else, including himself.

This is an extraordinary film. De Niro in the central role delivers one of those powerhouse performances that simply blows the audience away. Travis is somebody we know; Travis has always been here. It's impossible to wake up and imagine a world before this happened. But the rest of the film is spot on, too. In places the cinematography uses only natural light; we're soaked in the darkness of this world, ever alert to possible danger, shifts of mood, like Travis cautiously watching his rear view mirror. At times we're not quite sure what is or isn't real, sharing the heady experience of prolonged insomnia. The score hisses, creaks and thunders, catching us by surprise. Like Travis' moods, able to shift at a moment's notice. Charming, then terrifying. Hope, then desolation.

The supporting cast are superb. Foster excels in the difficult role of Iris (she was 13 at the time) and makes her a convincing human being even when seen through Travis' distorted gaze. Like everybody here, she has her own agenda. Harvey Keitel gets minimal screentime as her brutal pimp but leaves quite an impression. Harris is perfectly slick. Peter Boyle, as fellow taxi driver Wizard, seems to live and breathe the resentment that only Travis can turn into action.

Taxi Driver is probably the only film that can claim to have inspired the attempted assassination of a president. Whilst that's hardly something its creators are pleased about, it is a measure of its force. Now beautifully restored and as relevant as ever, it's a must see.

Reviewed on: 13 May 2011
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A former soldier struggles to find direction and grows dangerously angry on the streets of New York.
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Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: Paul Schrader

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Cybill Shepherd, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Harvey Keitel

Year: 1976

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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