(Air Date: Week Of 2/14/96)
It was creepy 20 years ago, and it's creepy now. I'm talking about "Taxi Driver," the mid-70s shocker that catapulted Martin Scorsese onto the Op-Ed pages, Robert De Niro to stardom and Jodie Foster out of child stardom. Reviled in some circles at the time as a irresponsible and paranoid urban nightmare and blamed a few years later for John Hinckley's assassination attempt on Ron "I'm Only Acting" Reagan, "Taxi Driver" holds up as a landmark in American cinema. Not for its insights into big-city life, mind you, but as a brilliantly nuanced character study.
De Niro, you may recall, is Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet with a sleeping disorder. Well, he's got some other problems, too, like a terrible diet. And a deficiency of social skills. Oh yeah, and a tendency toward schizophrenia.
The surprisingly uneventful plot follows Travis' growing disgust with the filth and depravity that defines Manhattan. He develops a crush on a presidential campaign worker, with Cybill Shepherd nailing the part of the not-terribly-deep ice princess. Eventually Travis settles on the dubious purpose of rescuing a child prostitute. All credit to Jodie Foster, older than her years, who gives a surprisingly complex spin to her character in just a couple of scenes.
Kudos go to Scorsese, of course, for patiently building suspense through a succession of astonishing scenes. Remember the bearded Scorsese himself as a tightly wound passenger staking out his wife from Travis' cab? And there's the black comedy of Travis buying a gun- -but not drugs, "Nah, never use 'em"--from some equally crazy punk in a hotel room. And let's not forget screenwriter Paul Schrader for crafting a deceptively rich story that gives us enough to get deep into Travis' head, but also leaves room to imagine just how frighteningly sick this bastard is.
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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