What Makes Taxi Driver So Powerful? An In-Depth Study of Martin Scorsese’s Existential Film on the Human Condition

The field jack­et, the mohawk, the “real rain” that will “wash all this scum off the streets,” the vir­tu­oso track­ing shot over the after­math of a mas­sacre, “You talkin’ to me?”: so many ele­ments of Taxi Dri­ver have found per­ma­nent places in cin­e­mat­ic cul­ture, and almost as many have found per­ma­nent places in the cul­ture, peri­od. Thanks to its wide-rang­ing influ­ence as well as its pres­ence that endures more than forty years on, even those who’ve nev­er seen the movie in some sense already know it.

What makes Taxi Dri­ver so pow­er­ful? Lewis Bond, video essay­ist and cre­ator of Chan­nel Criswell, sets out to answer that ques­tion in the two-part, fea­ture-length analy­sis above. Mar­tin Scors­ese’s fifth film, and the sec­ond of his col­lab­o­ra­tions with Robert de Niro, Taxi Dri­ver came out in 1976.

Adapt­ing the film noir tra­di­tion for an even more cyn­i­cal post-Viet­nam era, it osten­si­bly mount­ed a grim cri­tique of Amer­i­ca. Audi­ences of the 1970s, espe­cial­ly audi­ences of New York­ers, might have read­i­ly iden­ti­fied with the judg­ments of moral, social and urban decay bit­ter­ly aired by de Niro as Travis Bick­le.

But before long, those first view­ers sure­ly real­ized that they were watch­ing a work of art both more com­plex and more uni­ver­sal than that. Bond’s read­ing of the film gets right to the study at its heart of iso­la­tion, hypocrisy, puri­ty, cor­rup­tion, desire, and vengeance, char­ac­ter­is­tics found in but hard­ly unique to the human expe­ri­ence in 70s New York City. “Mar­tin Scors­ese’s 1976 film is a film that does not grow dat­ed, or over-famil­iar,” writes Roger Ebert in a 2004 appre­ci­a­tion. “I have seen it dozens of times. Every time I see it, it works; I am drawn into Travis’ under­world of alien­ation, lone­li­ness, hap­less­ness and anger.”

Ebert under­stands, as Bond does, that “utter alone­ness is at the cen­ter of Taxi Dri­ver, one of the best and most pow­er­ful of all films, and per­haps it is why so many peo­ple con­nect with it even though Travis Bick­le would seem to be the most alien­at­ing of movie heroes. We have all felt as alone as Travis. Most of us are bet­ter at deal­ing with it.” Yet over the past four decades, even as New York has emerged from near-bank­rupt­cy to become one of the most expen­sive and glam­orous of all cities, real-life Travis Bick­les have vis­it­ed their vio­lent, mis­be­got­ten vengeance all over Amer­i­ca. Mak­ing Taxi Dri­ver, Scors­ese and his col­lab­o­ra­tors thought they were cap­tur­ing the dying gasp of a city. Instead, they cap­tured an aspect of the human con­di­tion that haunts us more than ever today.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Revis­it Mar­tin Scorsese’s Hand-Drawn Sto­ry­boards for Taxi Dri­ver

Robert De Niro’s Taxi Cab License Used to Pre­pare for Taxi Dri­ver (1976)

What Is Apoc­a­lypse Now Real­ly About? An Hour-Long Video Analy­sis of Fran­cis Ford Coppola’s Viet­nam Mas­ter­piece

Mar­tin Scors­ese Teach­es His First Online Course on Film­mak­ing: Fea­tures 30 Video Lessons

The Essen­tial Ele­ments of Film Noir Explained in One Grand Info­graph­ic

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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