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Retro Ramblings – Taxi Driver (1976)

Does Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver succeed in wooing a first-time viewer 48 years after its release? Srivathsan Nadadhur attempts to decode its allure

There’s an additional degree of pressure being a first-time viewer of a film with an undisputed legacy across decades. For the writer of this piece, who prefers not to call himself a Hollywood enthusiast yet and has only marginally explored Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking oeuvre, one presumes it’s never too late to watch the 1976 release Taxi Driver.

The writer of Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader, in a pre-release interview of the film, claimed that he didn’t want to spoon-feed audiences with the past of a cynical protagonist. Paul claimed he wasn’t a great fan of dumbing down his acts citing a specific reason. All you know is that Travis Bickle has undisclosed, unresolved trauma and is disgruntled with his mundane existence as a taxi driver in New York.

The film unfolds in the mid-1970s US, with the socio-political climate heating up in the wake of the presidential elections. There are flashes of the post-Vietnam war ennui in a country where the scope for hope and enthusiasm is little, at least through Travis’ eyes. Given the protagonist is a taxi driver, the profession works as a worthy avenue to comprehend the grim pulse of a city.

Travis hardly goes to the movies or listens to music, is sleep-deprived and longs for companionship. As he bumps into Betsy, who works for the campaign of the presidential candidate Charles Palantine, sparks fly. He oversells himself on their first date and has mean words to say about her male colleague, perhaps out of jealousy. Betsy rightly calls him a bunch of contradictions, comparing him to Kris Kristofferson’s music.

Betsy falls for his charm and unusual wit but Travis’ socially awkward ways get the better of him. What affects Travis isn’t the breakup but the inescapable loneliness; the frustration is gradually eating him up. It’s safe to believe that Martin Scorsese viewed the film as a character study of a sociopath, more than as a crime or an action drama.

The filmmaker genuinely succeeds in building dramatic tension; the emptiness in Travis’ life is palpable. Taxi Driver is a stylistic delight – visually and musically – there’s drama through the aesthetics and the leisurely storytelling provides a strange sense of comfort, as Scorsese keeps delaying the inevitable. All Travis wants is a release – it doesn’t matter if it changes his life for the better/worse.

Storytellers have constantly used a prostitute’s character as a tool to trigger a transformation in the protagonist and Taxi Driver is no exception. Here, Travis genuinely wants to help a 12-year-old who’s lured into prostitution, but his saviour act is not intentional. After a failed attempt to unleash his anger at another pivotal character and almost playfully murdering a thug at a store, he merely needed an excuse to redeem himself.

If you’re viewing Taxi Driver today, there’s every chance that you may be trying too hard to decode the reason behind its cult status. In films around sociopaths, you either wait for the big reveal of his past or the adrenaline rush of a spine-chilling conclusion. Taxi Driver ensures the latter partially, but what it showcases more is his impulsiveness and the randomness of his actions.

Taxi Driver’s beauty is its concise storytelling, never stating the obvious. Watching it with a ‘classic’ tag attached to it is a burden; it partially leaves you unsatisfied too and makes you wonder if the film and the protagonist deserved a more satisfactory culmination. However, it’s important to understand that Taxi Driver was made for a 1976 audience; it served its purpose then and the longevity now is only a bonus.

(Taxi Driver is streaming on Sony LIV)

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