Judge Ike Oden is God's Hungry Man.
Our review of Taxi Driver: Special Edition, published June 17th, 1999, is also available.
From the preface of Paul Schrader's screenplay:
"The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence."…Thomas Wolfe, "God's Lonely Man"
It is my opinion that Taxi Driver will go down in history as Martin Scorsese's most iconic film. That's not to say it is his best (one could make a convincing argument, because it's hard to stack against equally amazing films like Goodfellas and Raging Bull), just that Taxi Driver seems to stand in as the pop cultural symbol of his career, with Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro, Awakenings) the Mickey Mouse to his Walt Disney.
Like Mickey Mouse, Bickle's character has become a small merchandising empire unto himself. I live in a college town, meaning that there is nary a week that goes by where I don't see the character's wild-eyed, gun toting, mohawked visage emblazoned across a t-shirt, a button, or a poster somewhere on campus.
As a film fan, it pleases me to know that further generations are embracing the film, but it also scares me just a little bit, too, as it seems the anti-hero has been elevated by many into a full fledged hero…just like in the movie. Regardless of how meta I want to take this, it's no big thing to see an anti-hero elevated so highly, but what has always concerned me about the celebration of Travis Bickle is that he doesn't feel like an over stylized character. Hannibal Lector (The Silence of the Lambs), Tony Montoya (Scarface) or Tyler Durden (Fight Club)—all three have a slightly cartoonish bent (especially in terms of philosophy) that feels perfect for merchandising, trivializing fodder.
Travis Bickle, on the other hand, feels as real as you or me, a terrifyingly unpredictable psychopath that's easy to sympathize with and, in turn, a difficult fit for retro chic t-shirts and dorm room shrines. Whatever balks I might have, this popularity is hard evidence of the film's lasting power. As such, Sony re-releases Travis' mental disintegration on Blu-ray in one of the very best special editions I've come across in my history with the format. It lives up to the film's legacy and reignites that sense of discomfort that can only happen when De Niro is strapping on pistols and courting twelve-year-olds.
Facts of the Case
Travis Bickle (De Niro), an insomniac former Marine and Vietnam vet, gets a job as a New York taxi driver. His excursions take him to the fringes of New York's roughest neighborhoods, where he encounters all manner of customers, from a Presidential candidate to a child prostitute (Jodie Foster, Panic Room). On these streets, he sees the worst of what humanity has to offer, and lashes back in equally horrific ways.
The power of Taxi Driver is hard to describe in words, a high compliment for any film, regardless of age. Everyone has their own reading of it, and I can do no better than to give you my own:
Taxi Driver works because it is almost purely from Bickle's perspective—an angry, disillusioned and contradictory viewpoint that would be a tall order for any director to pull off. Scorsese's approach, coupled with Paul Schrader's complex script, makes it look easy. The final product is a film that is as exhaustive, intense, and tragic as cinema can get, combining the grammar of a gothic horror with the conventions of traditional film noir to externalize Bickle's fractured psyche.
A fog drenched introduction shows the interior POV of a taxi drifting through a rain-soaked New York. This is cross-cut with a view of the taxi itself cutting through the fog like a phantom. It is Bickle's coffin, where he goes to let his soul die, driving most of his clients around as a mute servant. Bickle feeds himself to the world he hates, letting prostitutes use it as a room; chauffeuring psychopathic husbands; and taking money from pedophilic pimps. Within the taxi, he observes in the world and judges it for what he sees it without ever associating himself with it.
Though he complains of the isolation that follows him, he uses loneliness as a defensive mechanism against the world. Composer Bernard Hermann's score expresses this introversion with smoky jazz club melancholia that gives way to ominous, doom-laden horn blaring when it gives way to Bickle's paranoia. Herrmann, among the greatest composers of all time, is the most direct link between the audience and Bickle's state of mind. Hermann's score tells us the character has been swallowed up by the emotion before the character is even introduced. Travis' reliance on beer, caffeine pills and pornography to get through his day only re-affirms it.
At its core, Taxi Driver is about how Bickle's loneliness festers and grows, turning him into a monster much worse than anything he can pick up off the streets. The key to the character is in his mysteriousness. The audience knows and doesn't know Travis all at once, thrown off by a voice over narration read from his journals or mail correspondences. The narration moves in and out of the film, a rambling, fragmented voice trapped within the walls of Bickle's cramped apartment and the chicken scratched pages of his journals. It is the voice in his head, one that appears when he's giving himself over to his psychosis. Whether he's playing cowboy in the mirror with his homemade arsenal ("You talkin' to me?"), obsessing over a would-be girlfriend (Cybil Shepherd, The Last Picture Show), burning his arm over a stove or writing a deceiving letter to his parents, this is where we get Bickle in his truest sense, making his interactions with people outside his apartment hideaway even more awkward, intense, and sad.
Though the voice is laden with delusions, the truth of Travis's plans are hinted at subtlety through the misinformation, keeping the audience guessing as to what the hell Travis is planning in his training. Even if you know the trajectory of the plot (which most anyone reading this review does) De Niro plays the character with such absolute believability that keeps you second-guessing yourself as to his character's intentions on repeat viewings. One can't help but feel even Bickle doesn't know what he's doing, maintaining a poker face so convincing he can hardly scrutinize his own intentions.
De Niro is aided by an A-list cast that breathes life into Taxi Driver's secondary characters. Foster, Albert Brooks (Defending Your Life), Shepherd, Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs), Peter Boyle (Friends of Eddie Coyle), and Leonard Harris all sell the diverse community of a post-Vietnam New York, from proletariat intellectuals (Shepherd, Brooks, Harris) to blue collar losers (Boyle); naive victims (Foster); and scummy criminals (Keitel); the cast brings to life all sides of this metropolitan world that Bickle wants to save from itself.
In the end, Bickle's attempts to save the world are as scary as the world itself. Like any good vigilante film, Taxi Driver ends with a blood soaked shootout. Unlike Death Wish or any number of vintage action films, Scorsese films the scene like the disgusting bloodbath it is—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with pistols. It is here the audience should fully grasp Travis for what he is—a misunderstood man who has made himself into a beast. Scorsese's ending can be interpreted in a number of ways. Whether the coda is a fantasy in Bickle's head or a reality of media spin, it re-affirms Bickle as a noir figure who has survived his self-destruction and made himself something, if only in his own mind.
Sony's Blu-ray is immaculate. The picture is very sharp and very detailed without ever sacrificing the grimy, grainy cinematography makes Taxi Driver a time capsule of New York at its worst. The contradictory colors are brought to vivid life, with deep black levels and beautiful reds, greens, and blues. Yes, there is a little murkiness, and the disc falls short of looking as clean as any modern film, but short of seeing a 35mm print of the film, this is the absolute best Taxi Driver is going to look on home video. It's nothing short of fabulous.
The audio mix is perfect, a mix that's crystal clear with subtle details like gun shots and engine rumblings that sound realistic without overproduction, never betraying the film's insular style. Herrmann's iconic score has never sounded better, and though its crescendos never blast you out of your chair, you will feel it right in your gut. Just like the rest of the movie.
The extras live up to the Blu-ray's technical presentation in every way. There's so much here it would take at least a day or two to plow through it all (it did me, anyway):
We begin with three commentary tracks. The first, ported over from Criterion's 1986 laserdisc, features Scorsese and Schrader as moderated by a Criterion announcer. Though it often feels spliced together awkwardly, it is easily the most substantial track on here. Given that it missed the boat on the prior DVD collector edition release, it is a treasure for fans of the film. A second track features Professor Robert Kolker giving a detailed and exhaustive reading of the film that ranks well among film critic recorded commentaries. Finally, a newer track with Schrader flying solo is a little dry (most of his commentaries are), but if you're a fan of the man it is probably worth your time.
Next up are a collection of newly-minted featurettes, all of them amazing and all of them presented in HD:
"Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver" interviews the man about how he became involved in the picture and the influences (cinematic and literary) that went into the production.
Next, "Producing Taxi Driver" interviews Michael Phillips, who chronicles how he became involved with the film and positions its place in Hollywood's New Wave class of the 1970s.
My favorite featurette is "God's Lonely Man," an interview with Schrader and aforementioned critic Kolker that takes us through Schrader's writing process on a psychological and professional level.
"Influences and Appreciations" is a tribute to Scorsese headlined by heavy-hitters like Schrader as well as Oliver Stone (Salvador). It comes off as a little repetitive given the fact so many Scorsese discs have tributes to him along these lines. It's okay, if a bit shallow.
"Taxi Driver Stories" gives testimonials from real life New York taxi drivers that survived during the 1970s. The documentary legitimizes Bickle's opinions of New York during this time, and shows how real deal taxi drivers related to De Niro's character given the similarities of their life to the film. Of the featurettes, it is probably the most fascinating, riddled with some unbelievable stories, mostly involving weapons or trans-gender prostitutes.
"Travis' New York" features more testimonies from the filmmakers regarding the authenticity of the film's setting, while "Travis' New York Locations" revisits many of the film's most pivotal locales in 2006.
Recycled from the original special edition is "Making of Taxi Driver" a fairly extensive retrospective on the film that includes input from all of the major parties involved, including Foster, Boyle, Brooks and Shepherd (who are mostly absent from the newer features). When I owned the DVD, this ranked as one of my favorite special features of all time, a spot it still reserves in my geeky heart. Presented in standard, it holds up very well in light of the newer bonus content.
The disc is rounded out by a load of interactive features. A "Storyboard To Film Comparison" is prefaced by a fascinating introduction with Scorsese, who explains his philosophy behind storyboarding. Also included is an interactive script-to-screen screenplay, a BD Exclusive that is indispensable to aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers.
Animated photo galleries, MovieIQ trivia track and BD-Live content is also included.
Of special note is the disc's packaging, a nice digibook style package that contains twelve Taxi Driver still photos from the movie. The digibook is a bit taller and thicker than regular Blu-ray discs, which may cause some organizational awkwardness on your shelf. On the plus side, all you crazy kids that aren't content with having a bloodied, shot up Robert De Niro on your shirt can now have him on your wall, too. Huzzah!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Is it possible to have too much Albert Brooks? My only complaint with Taxi Driver after numerous viewings is that Brooks and Shepherd's scenes together, alone at their political office, breaks the tension of Travis' tunnel vision view of the world. Brooks is amusing, has some good bits and great chemistry with Shepherd. He's clearly around to act as a masculine counterbalance to Travis, but, for me, these segments go on a bit too long. Yes, it serves a purpose and drives the story along, but a little bit of trimming could've tightened these scenes and made the film flow more seamlessly.
If nothing else, Taxi Driver is a warning: a warning against glorifying the reality of violence and a warning to not to self-impose loneliness, lest we become a thing more hideous than the life we've alienated ourselves from. Long after the fall of the film's period, Taxi Driver is as touching, important, and relevant as ever, nightmarish stuff that sure as hell isn't fit for a t-shirt.
Then again, my fashion sense is pretty lax. Either way, the Blu-ray is damn near perfect, as is the movie and making this disc a must own, period.
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