When “Taxi Driver” came out in 1976 it caused a veritable shit- storm in the media. It also had a profound affect on audiences. Hell, it had a pretty profound effect on me, when I was old enough to see it, in 1983 or so. As time passed, “Taxi Driver” actuallybecame evenmore influential, it had true staying power. This review is my attempt to show the true value of “Taxi Driver”- and hopefully, why it deserves your serious attention today- forty-six years after it was made.
On the surface, “Taxi Driver” is a very gritty, very film noir investigation of the inner mental life of a war veteran who has been turned into a psychopath by his service in Vietnam. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) has a variety of personal issues mostly centred around sexual guilt and disgust. He is simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by the seamy sexual underbelly of New York which he sees every night in his work as a taxi driver. He becomes obsessed by a United States Senator he sees in a compromising position one night in the back seat of his cab and, while stalking the senator sees one of the campaign workers, a beautiful blonde ice-maiden, Betsy (Cybill Shepard). Betsy seems to personify for him everything that he craves, beauty, innocence, demure sexuality. He places her on an unrealistic pedestal in his mind but His attempts to woo her are shambolic and largely unsuccessful, so he seems to switch targets, determining to assassinate the senator who he,(probably justifiably ) perceives as a rival to Betsy’s affections, while simultaneously viewing him as morally dubious and unworthy of office.
In the midst of this, while he is driving late one night, Travis has a chance encounter with a street prostitute, “Easy”(Jodie Foster). He is shocked to the core by how young she is and instantly switches targets and becomes a knight in shining armour determining to rescue “Easy” at all costs, and return her to midwest family values and what he sees as moral acceptability, by which we can assume that he is a good country boy driven crazy by the war and morally reacting to the lax moral values of the big city folk who were by inference, probably responsible for starting it. He is, in short, a right wing poster boy and the pointy end of a double edged sword that speared the mainstream media.
On one hand, Travis Bickle is the perfect anti-hero to massage the sensitive areas of radio shock jocks to full attention. The problem though is that Bickle, frightened off from his Senatorial assassination plans, switches to a far softer target – the bawdy house where he imagines Easy is held against her will. His house cleaning is an explosion of ultra-violent mass murder that perversely, no shock jock can publicly condone. It’s rather funny to think about; the self-righteous mouthpieces of family values who would, every night on the radio, rail against the same perceived moral rot and social decay that Travis Bickle hates, having to distance themselves from him publicly and loudly reject his methods, no matter how much they might privately agree with them.
As a side note, Terry Gilliam’s film “The Fisher King” directly addresses this issue, with a radio talkback host joking that Yuppies should be shot – a joke that results in a bloodbath, the DJ losing his job and taking to suicidal drinking.
It was something of a wonder that “Taxi Driver” did not cause a worldwide string of DJ explosions, as, overpowered by warring impulses they actually found themselves having to shut up for their own job security and instantly exploded from the internal pressure.
They was one person who had no such inhibitions however, and John Hinkley’s response to the film is the stuff of legend. Though not much is known about Hinkley’s mental state at the time, a lot can be guessed by the fact that he seems to have identified with Travis Bickle, to an unhealthy extent and the fact that he fell in love with Jodie Foster’s character on the screen and fallen in love with her. Hinkley immediately set about stalking the real world Jodie Foster, and developed the theory that she was ignoring him because he was unimportant. Being an assassin might get her to regard his great love more weightily. While no-one is sure why Hinkley picked Ronald Reagan specifically, a his assassination was as big a botch as Travis Bickle’s attack on the bawdy house, where it is never truly clear who the intended target is and which only really results in a profoundly traumatised young girl, too shocked and grief-stricken to be “rescued” from a place she seems worryingly happy to be “imprisoned” in. Two things are certain. “Easy” regards Bickle’s gory rescue attempt as a highly unwelcome intrusion into her comparatively placid life, and Hinkley only wounded the President, with a bullet that ricocheted off the Limousine. He did however wound three others, one whom died 33 years later, from the .22 calibre bullet that lodged in his Spine during the attack.
The final coda of “Taxi Driver” has it that Bickle lives, Easy/Iris is returned to her rightful place in the God-fearing Midwest and to the waiting arms of her thankful parents who are so voluble in their thanks that Travis Bickle, far from getting a long stretch in prison for mass murder, is elevated to the status of local hero, gets his 15 minutes of fame in the papers, and goes back to driving a cab. One night Betsy gets into his taxi, but he is no longer interested in her.
John Hinkley Jnr was released from a secure mental ward in 2016.
“Taxi Driver many, many, re-watchings, stimulating different thoughts and reactions each time, which is the hallmark of a true classic, and a work of art
(c) Copyright 2022 Alex Rieneck All Rights Reserved.