#2 — Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
When Robert De Niro played Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, he borrowed the clothing of screenwriter Paul Schrader to start shaping the character. Schrader, putting it simply, was a twisted dude. He has a compulsion for guns and an inner monologue that had a lot in common with that of the lead character he penned. The character emerged from Schrader’s typewriter partially at the suggestion of De Niro, who noted he was interested in a story about a emotionally wounded man who walked the city streets with a concealed pistol at the ready, anxious to wreak vengeful havoc against the darker forces at work in the urban landscape. This was actually a familiar theme in the nineteen-seventies: angry men pushed to their limits by the corrosion of society and pushing back against the vile interlopers on civilized society, using a rain of bullets to wash all this scum off the streets. None of those other films was Taxi Driver, though.
Schrader’s howl of anguish and rage straight from the id met its perfect interpreter in director Martin Scorsese. Acclaimed for Mean Streets and boosted by a new cachet within the industry after shepherding Ellen Burstyn to an Oscar win for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the Italian-American director was given the opportunity to handle the prickly, dangerous script, helped by his friend De Niro’s support, which carried extra weight because of the shiny new Academy Award he had with his name etched across the base. (Skittish studio execs still only went forward after receiving the promise that Scorsese would be replaced by Steven Spielberg if the project started to go south.) Besides an ever-growing command of the mechanics of cinematic storytelling and a relentlessly inventive eye, Scorsese brought a fascination with knotty morality that complicated and deepened Schrader’s nihilistic fantasies. The one-time aspirational seminarian understood something that likely eluded Schrader: Travis was a far more interesting character if he was less a constant expression of damage than a man who believed he was saving people, who mistook his own corrosion for nobility.
Taxi Driver takes the simmering dissatisfaction of the time and fans it into an inferno. Travis is a direct witness to the ugliness of New York City from the front seat of his cab, listening to passengers vomit up their brutish viewpoints or even engage in full-scale illicit behavior in the back, sinning as the meter runs. Scorsese meets this existential tumult with a fiercely dynamic style, though not one that is overly showy or calls attention to itself. Instead, Scorsese’s direction fairly bristles with feverish energy and intellectual curiosity. The spirit of the piece has been scraped raw by Travis’s biting disdain for his surroundings, and the bitterness stirred to life by thwarted plans for redemption, for himself and others. Even before the eventual collapse of Travis’s psyche takes place, the character seems like his can crumble at any moment, and Scorsese’s film palpitates with that very tension. That can be attributed somewhat to the angst of Schrader’s screenplay, but it takes the genius of Scorsese to realize it for the screen.
The performance of De Niro in the leading role is rightly iconic. It somehow condenses an entirely nation adrift into a single disturbed character, and makes him equal parts frightening and sympathetic. It’s not just a tightrope act without a net, but also without any discernible wire. There’s not an ounce of safety to the performance, which is precisely what makes it so thrilling. Exceptional acting is found across the cast–Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks and teenaged Jodie Foster all merit the highest of praise–but everyone else still needs to stand in the long, heavy shadow of De Niro’s work. That he may have had an ideal model for the role in the man who penned the script is incidental. Finding his way to the truth of a character this complex is a compelling demonstration of exactly why De Niro remains an actor of reverence. No amount of drab, disinterested performances later in his career can erase what he achieves in Taxi Driver. It’s ferociousness rendered in tightly contained gestures and questing eyes, almost exhausting in its brilliance.