Recently, I watched The French Connection (1971), the American Film Institute’s ninety-third greatest American film of all time. Lower on the list is Taxi Driver (1976) at number fifty-two. These movies are linked in showing a New York City seemingly beyond saving, culturally, economically, and, most importantly, spiritually. If you read my review of The French Connection, you will note the hopelessness with which the urban environment is depicted. The streets are dirty, there are dirty cops, and everyone else in them are after their own dirty pursuits. Taxi Driver shows nothing different. It is in their solutions to at least a portion of these problems that sets them apart. Where The French Connection suggests that there is no stopping crime, the title character in Taxi Driver takes a more direct and violent approach . . . and is somehow heralded as a hero?
The eponymous person in Taxi Driver is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). He is a former United States Marine and Vietnam veteran, and he purposely seeks out operating a cab because he wants long hours. As he says in a voice over that seems partially meant to be a letter to his parents, and partially journal entries where he vents his mad ramblings, he works six days a week, sometimes seven, from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am or later. In between, he does not sleep. Between his insomnia and the clear emotional scars left over from his days in the armed forces, he is obviously in need of professional help. Yet, in the jungle that is New York City in this day and age, he is simply what it says in the title. Performing this sort of job brings him into content with what he refers to as all kinds of filth, and he wades through it unflinchingly. Amongst all the muck and mire, there is, in his eyes, one angel: Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). She works in a downtown office on the campaign of Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who is running for president. Travis drives by her workplace so many times that he gets noticed. Thus, there is nothing left for him to do to than to go inside and talk to her. She agrees to have coffee with him, and this becomes an invitation to see a movie, which she also accepts. The movie takes a bit of a left turn at this point, no pun intended. For their night at the cinema, he brings her to a pornographic theater. He then cannot understand why she suddenly gets up and leaves after less than a minute of watching that garbage. Then again, the guy is crazy, so I guess that partially explains it. She also rebuffs his attempts to make up for what he claims is an innocent oversight on his part. His attempts to send flowers are refused, and eventually she stops taking his phone calls. This causes him to further break from reality. He begins telling himself and a few others that he working for the government on a special mission that he must complete, though he never says the exact nature of this task. To this end, he finally takes up some of his co-workers on their suggestion that he purchase a firearm for his protection. His contact for the sale is selling them to him without permit. He goes in seeking one gun, and comes out with a small arsenal. Once he gets them home, he spends his free time figuring out ways to conceal them on his person and honing his aim on the firing range. In the midst of this, he finally tracks down Iris Steensma (Jodie Foster), a teenaged prostitute that had once jumped into his taxi in need of help. Travis had not reacted in the moment, and the memory of her being dragged out of the car eats at him. When he finds her, he pays the money to her pimp, Matthew “Sport” Higgins (Harvey Keitel), and they go up to her room. Instead of doing what people normally do in such situations, he tries to remind Iris of their earlier meeting. She claims she does not remember. In response, Travis switches tactics, attempting to convince her to leave behind her life as a sex worker. This comes as they share a breakfast the next morning. Their talk seems to have an effect on Iris, though a few moments with Sport dispels any thought of leaving. Back at home, while watching a soap opera, Travis finally snaps. He feels he must act, but sends Iris the money she needs to leave the city before doing anything. His first thought is to assassinate Senator Palantine. Would you believe it that a guy standing by himself, fresh mohawk cut into his hair, would attract the notice of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect the presidential hopeful? Crazy, right? Well, Travis unsurprisingly is spotted in the crowd and is chased away before he can get close enough to get off a shot. He then settles for going on a rampage in the building in which Iris plies her trade. He starts with Sport, shooting him on his way into the building. He then proceeds to murder a number of other men in the building, though taking a few bullets himself. He then tries taking his own life at the end, but is out of ammunition. Instead, he sits down on Iris’ couch, and is there bleeding when the police enter with their weapons drawn. He does not die, though, and is made out to be a hero by the press. We close with him back on the taxi line, getting one more fare. It is Betsy, who says she had read about his exploits in the paper. When they get to her destination, she gets out to pay but he pulls away without charging her. Roll credits.
There is a concept in Taxi Driver that it helped put on the cinematic map, and I do not believe I have said much about in other reviews here on The Legionnaire. It is the idea of the anti-hero, and this describes Travis’ character. The term would seem to indicate an antagonist, or bad guy. In practice, it is a bad guy that is thrust into the role of a good guy. It generally refers to somebody who is not averse to doing terrible things for supposedly the right reasons. It is another way of saying “the ends justify the means.” It is also a concept that has plagued film since the 1970s. So many movies have these characters because those who make them think that this is how you make characters more relatable. Indeed, Travis tells us in one of his narrations that he just wants to become a person like other people. He does not see most of those who inhabit the city as people. Thus, he wants to do what I have heard other people claim to also desire: to clean up the perceived problems through any means necessary. There are a lot of problems with these ideas from a Catholic and Christian perspective. First, the ends never justify the means. Jesus’ admonishment about gaining the world for the price of your soul in Mark 8:36 nicely takes care of that notion. Put differently, it is a contradiction of terms that any amount of sin can lead to salvation. They simply do not compute. I will at least credit Travis for wanting something better. What he does not seem to understand, however, is that he is already like the rest of us, that being sinners. It is important to recognize sin around you, but healing it does not involve shooting it.
It is in these violent means that Taxi Driver and The French Connection are similar. They leave a bad feeling after watching them, and I do not recommend them. Though Taxi Driver has the slightest of happier endings, I do not condone the methods by which it arrives at it. Nothing contained therein will make you think good things. Skip.
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