Saturday, June 11, 2011

All Alone, I Break

Not everyone likes Westerns. Not even one as good as The Searchers, and I get that. My wife would rather have a tooth pulled than sit through one with me. So for all of you who just can't bring yourself to ride through the old West this week I'll review the spiritual successor to The Searchers, Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and directed by the great Martin Scorsese.

Taxi Driver deals with the same themes as The Searchers, depression, loneliness, rage and obsession. But unlike The Searchers, this film becomes more of a nightmare than a story of redemption. Still, many of us have a strong connection to the tragic main character. The story is centered around Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a marine who has just returned from Vietnam and is now working as a taxi driver in New York City.

As Travis drives around the city he is overcome with loathing for everything that he sees and the audience hears his thoughts as he moves through the urban jungles. "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the street." What is this "real rain" he refers to? We have an idea but we really don't want to know the truth. Travis is consumed by his thoughts, he is a man who has reached such a deeply painful level of loneliness that he loses touch. In one scene we hear him say, "Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man."

As the film progresses Travis' loneliness begins to break down the barriers of his sanity. He desperately tries to reach out for another human connection, but he fails at every turn. He tries to take out a very pretty campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd) for a congressman but, inevitably frightens her away. He tries to talk to the congressman himself and causes an extremely tense moment between the two men. He eventually tries to befriend a young prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) and then questions her pimp (Harvey Keitel), a man he calls chief (seemingly a reference to the Indian chief who takes Natalie Wood in The Searchers).

Travis tries to convince Iris to go back home and leave New York. Iris tells him that she is happy where she is and doesn't want to leave but he doesn't believe her. Eventually his attempts to get her to leave frighten her away as well. Travis is left alienated and alone again, and reality slips away just a little more. "I get some bad ideas in my head," he tells us. The threads of sanity have begun to unravel.

He goes and buys several guns from a dealer and we then witness one of the greatest scenes ever captured on camera. We are watching the absolute dissolution of a desperate man. Travis stands in front of a mirror with a gun in each hand and begins to talk to his reflection. "You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?" That is one of the most quoted lines in history but, the most powerful line is often forgotten. "You talkin' to me? Well I'm the only one here." There's nobody else. Just a lonely, damaged man who has completely lost control.

"Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me."

That direction is to "rescue" Iris from what he believes is her captivity. Does she really want to be rescued? Like, The Searchers, maybe she is content to be left alone where she is. That is no longer an option, Travis' entire existence is now determined by his quest. He has to save the girl.

The ending of the film explodes with the violence that has been just beneath the surface the whole time. There is no redemption here, only chaos. Depression is rage turned inward, but in this scene the rage bursts free and no one, the audience included, will ever be the same.

And yet, we still connect with Travis so deeply that we fall into despair along with him. This is the genius of De Niro and Scorsese, they have created a character straight out of a nightmare but we still feel a connection with him. I can't give a higher compliment.

This Friday night if you can't deal with a Western or want to watch them both, you should slip down into madness with,

Taxi Driver

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