An unsettling experience, Taxi Driver is an experiment of the power of character and mood over narrative and plot. After having tried to work out what the film is actually about and why, as spectators, we have this confusing mix of emotions towards the films events and particularly the protagonist, it finally came to me overnight. And this ground-breaking conclusion reveals the masterpiece of which Schrader and Scorsese have created.
First of all, let’s reduce the narrative and simplify the plot to see what we find:
- Ordinary citizen works an average lower middle-class job.
- Tries unsuccessfully to win over woman
- Encounters damsel in distress suppressed by criminal
- Begins training himself, working towards a goal
- Defeats criminal gangsters, injured in the process, rescues damsel in distress back to her grateful family.
- Becomes national hero and wins over woman
Sound familiar? It should do. You’ve seen it a hundred times. An ordinary man becomes a hero, finding love along the way. Try and apply the same plot sequence to Batman (1989) for example and the same basic flow of events coincide. To Travis Bickle, New York City at night is Gotham city – filthy, crime-ridden, corrupt. The protagonist takes it upon himself to ‘clean it up’ since the authorities aren’t doing it themselves (note the taxi conversation between Bickle and Palantine). So he trains hard and transforms himself ready to take on the bad guys and become a hero.
Many other films can be applied also – Kick-Ass (2010) works perfectly, but more loosely so can Children of Men (2006), Die Hard (1988), The Matrix (1999) and Captain America (2007).
So why, unlike all the films mentioned above, are we not filled with triumph and pride at the end? Why do people not dress up like Travis Bickle ready to save the world? Why do we have this immense feeling of unease as the credits scroll up on the screen?
This is the power of character, brilliantly acted with the help of mood created by cleverly constructed cinematography and music.
Our protagonist has a slight awkwardness about him that is at first charming, with an almost Asperger’s like innocence. But at the same time there is something about him that shouts danger. This is in part due to his creepy calm and watchful approach, enhanced by his occupation as a night taxi driver. Indeed, the significance of the taxi reinforces the theme of voyeurism. Like a predator, Bickle glides through the night in his yellow and black disguise unnoticed by all yet watches all. De Niro’s soft voice and intense stare communicates this to the audience from Schrader’s direction – ‘a quiet steady look and a disarming smile… The head moves, the expression changes, but the eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking, piercing empty space.’ Although his attitude appears kind, if too kind, we then start to see strange emotional responses – his obsession with a woman, short bursts of anger, his passionate hatred for the pimps that surround him and we are confused. He is unpredictable. He is unsafe. He is dangerous.
This unease is also defined by Bickle’s severe loneliness and desperation for a purpose. However, unlike Bruce Wayne, Dave Lizewski or Neo, the hero remains unwanted, unneeded, but yet obsessed to fulfil his purpose. Thus, with a lack of social understanding and a boredom of using his own reflection to express his power, he creates for himself a situation where he is needed – he saves a young prostitute who appears more traumatised than rescued. His heroic position empowers him, and gives him a focus, a distraction. Starting at Batman, the film becomes more like Shutter Island (2010), the protagonist driven into his own fictional world where he is a hero with a sense of purpose and achievement to escape from his own loneliness and failings.
There is also a strange sexual edge to Bickle. In his taxi he watches women on the street, he is fascinated by their nightly habits. This suggests that the voyeurism explored through the taxi extends to a sexual theme. This is also outlined in Schrader’s description – ‘He has the smell of sex about him: Sick sex, repressed sex, lonely sex, but sex nonetheless.’ He appears traditional, romantic and respectful in his principals but this is counteracted by his actions – compelled by a beautiful woman he takes her out, sends her flowers and then he takes her to a porno movie. He pays for a prostitute then tries to befriend her and help her out of her work. It is the childlike innocence that is confusing and it is the confusion that is unsettling.
It would be inaccurate to say that all of this is conveyed just through De Niro’s portrayal of Schrader’s ingenious character. Like all films, emotion is manipulated through technique of micro elements, most significantly in this case through the cinematography and music. A combination of Scorsese’s direction and Michael Chapman’s cinematography brings these themes and ideas into an intense, personal experience where we feel both fascinated and threatened by the protagonist’s unpredictable character. Through the taxi we experience what he observes night by night. We sense the movement of the car, the waiting and watching the nightlife through a glass barrier and we see the destruction of his massacre from a god-like vantage point – we are the judge of his actions. The drops of thick red paste from his gun-shaped hand held towards his head. Childlike. Dangerous.
And with no one less than Bernard Herrmann to compose, perhaps fitting to employ the partner of the master of suspense. Just as the high screech of the violins gave pure dread in psycho, the easy jazz music seems all too simple for Taxi Driver, becoming more chilling as we anticipate a darker theme or a ‘catch’ which comes in a dramatic form, the music reaching a dissonant climax for the massacre scene, then returning to the easy jazz for the unsatisfactory ending.
Taxi driver has undoubtedly proven that a character, supported by other filmic features, has the power to control the emotional response of an audience and completely change the mood and feel of a film. Replace Travis Bicker with Bruce Wayne and Herrmann with John Williams Rand you’ve got yourself a feel-good superhero story. Instead is a man traumatised by war and left with a desperate desire to rescue those who do not wish to be rescued. But in the end he wins, and we, the audience, are the only ones that know his true state of mind. And this is as unsettling to watch as seeing The Joker walk free and triumphant at the end of a Batman movie.
Taxi Driver is not only a brilliant and powerful film, but a fascinating experiment of character and plot. An incredible insight into the ability to control one’s emotion through one man onscreen.