Seedy does not begin to describe the horror of "Taxi Driver," which details a world of pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts and a loner psycho brilliantly portrayed by Robert De Niro. This film established some of the great talents in motion picture history including De Niro, Scorsese, Albert Brooks and Jodie Foster. I wonder about disturbing epics like "Taxi Driver," "A Clockwork Orange," "Straw Dogs" and "Natural Born Killers." Whenever I visit the video store, I notice these films are usually checked out, empty boxes leaning against the shelf. Who's watching these films, and why so often? The films share a common thread in that they have likable actors (De Niro, Malcolm McDowell, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Harrelson) playing despicable men prone to violent rages. Alienated one and all, these characters have become anti-heroes for a world severely lacking in heroes. There are so many ways to view this film, with multiple levels serving as proof to its complicated brilliance. Urban alienation, cultural emptiness, veiled racism, Watergate analogy and Oswald repression are just a few of the metaphorical doors one can open in this nightmare.
De Niro's Bickle is a Vietnam veteran suffering from insomnia. He takes a job as a cab driver to work nights, driving through the most dangerous New York neighborhoods for fares. He becomes infatuated with a beautiful woman (Cybill Shepherd) who works at the campaign office of Palantine. Bickle takes the woman to a porno theater on their first date, and she dumps him immediately. To no one's surprise, Bickle soon begins to stalk her. He purchases a deadly arsenal of hand guns and intensely works out in preparation for his assassination of Palantine (and most likely the woman too). Along the way, Bickle stumbles across a 12-year old prostitute (Foster) whom he befriends. His attempted assassination fails and he walks over to the prostitute's home and kills her pimp (Harvey Keitel), landlord and an unlucky gangster. "Taxi Driver" unbelievably ends with the prostitute having been returned to her parents and Bickle becoming an inner-city folk hero. Shepherd's character tries to make a date with Bickle, but he's now at peace with the inferno around him and drives on disinterested.
This ending has been debated for years. It is so controversial that when the film first ran on television, stations posted warnings stating they did not consider Bickle a hero. They're right. Bickle's a whacked-out cultural icon, granted, but he's no hero. He wants to be a hero, and perhaps the final scene is Bickle at the moment of death dreaming of a happy ending. He's essentially saved the day and rescued a damsel in distress. Bickle was seriously wounded after the shootout, having been shot in the neck. So it could have been a dream sequence, though Scorsese purposefully made it too vague to be entirely sure.
It's clear Bickle wishes to be a cowboy hero in "Taxi Driver," as seen by the boots he wears and the guns he straps on like an inner-city John Wayne. His famously improvised "You talkin' to me?" speech is in fact a line of dialog lifted from the classic 1953 western "Shane." And the final showdown has Bickle taking on three men (outnumbered a la Cooper in "High Noon") in a bloody, ferocious battle that to this day is one of the most violent scenes in history. Bickle, adorned in Mohawk and Army jacket, fires at random. The violence is so sloppy one gets the feeling they are viewing an actual crime scene. There is no music, only the jagged noises of constant screaming and guns blasting within closed-in spaces. While we love the balletic violence of the final shootout in "The Wild Bunch," we turn away from the gore in "Taxi Driver." It's as repellant as reality.
Scorsese's masterpiece is not intended for the young or emotionally disturbed. Bickle is not a hero in a film populated by an army of non-heroes. Still, viewers just might get confused. I know Bickle is crazy, but I feel sorry for him. At times, I even identify with him. And that can be depressing.