R. I mean, it's Taxi Driver, guys. You may be confusing this movie for the Jimmy Fallon / Queen Latifah vehicle, Taxi. That movie was a fun family romp. This is Taxi Driver, a movie that became the face of the punk movement. It's got insanely uncomfortable violence and sexuality. The antihero protagonist visits porn theaters on the reg. He dreams about murdering people. There's child prostitution. It's got all kinds of uncomfortable material, which is kind of the point of the movie. R.
DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese
Man, watching Joker meant that I had to watch a bunch of disturbing films just so I could comment on Joker. I had seen Taxi Driver ages ago. I remember being so uncomfortable with the film that I thought that I would never watch it again. Well, that was true until my buddies got together and had a garage sale, so I bought the DVD to help my friend out. Then I thought I would get around to it and it just sat on a shelf. There are a handful of movies that I don't watch a ton because I think they might slightly be toxic for the soul. Taxi Driver, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Cabin Fever are my list right now. The thing about this list is that Taxi Driver actually might have something to say and its use of the uncomfortable is meant to be troubling.
Joker so desperately wanted Taxi Driver's tone. It borderline steals its setting. There's a very specific image of New York that Taxi Driver grabs. It's pretty much New York in the '70s during a garbage strike. I don't know where I read that (maybe Variety?) but it nailed it. I'm showing my film club The Two Towers right now and I think that New York acts as the corrupting influence like the one ring. See, I can dumb anything down, along with my readership. I apologize, wise reader, for making this comparison, but it probably ties in to what I want to say in the long run. Travis Bickle is never an amazing hero. He's a former marine, which gives him a noble quality to some extent. But Travis is a guy dealing with mental illness in what he sees as a positive way. He tries to take care of himself. He writes. He tries to go on dates. But the world around him is constantly corrupting a guy who has limited exposure to healthy outlets. The movie starts with Travis giving the audience some direct characterization. He has little education and, like The Hurt Locker, he has little exposure to normality. He can't sleep at night. The city constantly reminds him about misery. Scorsese's New York screams toxic throughout. There's very little positive to look for in this world. It's funny how Joker can have toxic Gotham and Taxi Driver can have toxic New York, but I can at least humanize with Travis Bickle.
Joker has Joaquin Phoenix in a dark place from moment one. He's only a few steps from becoming the Joker from the beginning. We see his journal, unlike Travis's, is full of pornography and troubling scribbles. Travis, however, is someone we want to root for, despite the knowledge that hope is ultimately silly. Travis is the underdog fighting against the city. I think that's maybe where Taxi Driver gets a little muddy in terms of message. The first time I watched this, it had to be in college. Because everything had to be extreme at that age, I couldn't wait for Travis to become the disturbed vigilante character. It would be a hearty dose of action in a slow, uncomfortable movie. But that's probably why I didn't like the movie the first time. Travis makes a terrible character to root for when it comes to him unleashing his dark side. This time, I watched it with the attitude that I wanted Travis to get mental help. I wanted his hair combed and brushed. I wanted him tucking in his shirt. I wanted him to go to the diner with his buddies. These were moments of hope. The shorter his hair got, the more uncomfortable I got with the movie. I watched this good man get drowned by the city and his mental illness. It makes the end all the more troubling for me.
I'm talking about the resolution. I don't know how I feel about the resolution of the film. If the climax of the film is Travis shooting up the bordello, the resolution is Travis being hailed as a hero cab driver. I always define climax as "The choice is made". Travis has officially lost himself to the vigilante in the bordello. He's very close to those moments ahead of time. It really starts in the sequence when he shoots Harvey Keitel in the stomach. That's when the climax begins and it ends with him miming that he wants to shoot himself in the head. He has given himself over to his psychosis. The city has changed him. That's what makes the ending so questionable for me. If Taxi Driver is a message movie, Scorsese is making a commentary on how we worship at the feet of violence. With the whole era of gun violence upon us now, what is Taxi Driver's prophetic message about gun violence. I think it is a commentary on "The good guy with a gun" being a load of hooey. I'm pretty anti-gun, so I can't help but bring my anti-gun bias into this criticism. Sorry, it's who I am. Travis views himself as the hero of the story. He buys a lot of guns from a very sketchy character and can't stop fantastizing about using those guns. He sees the moral good that he wants to do. He wants to free Iris from the pimp, and to do that, he has to kill. He points that gun everywhere. He becomes obsessed with the gun. The gun is freedom to him. How it ties into Palantine directly confuses me. The Palantine assassination subplot reads very much about a commentary on Travis's warped view on reality because I get the impression that he personally likes Palantine. But Palatine has also been associated with rejection on the part of Betsy. It's something that may make people feel like they are the actual good guy because they never plan on assassinating a public figure, so I don't love it as a beat in the film. But Travis's point of view is extremely dark. Scorsese doesn't make the violence sexy or fun. He makes it like the violence in Texas Chainsaw. It is blunt, brutal, and dark.
But then why the ending? I get the wanting to comment on society. But, considering all that he has done that is unhealthy, why does he have a relatively happy ending? Betsy kind of / sort of forgives him. He has his hair combed neatly and he looks kind of put together. That resolution I find extremely troubling. Is it advocating, maybe accidentally, about how violence does actually solve problems? Travis is labeled a hero for his actions in the bordello. We know that Travis is not in a good place for the majority of the film. Part of me thinks that Scorsese wants to remind us that our cab drivers may be Travis. Travis is just a guy out there. He may have done horrible things and we're out there, just interacting with him as if nothing were wrong. It's a bizarre, haunting concept. The closest ending I can think to Taxi Driver is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Norman is well groomed and looks innocent, but we are tainted by the knowledge of the things he's done. With Norman in Psycho, he's still going to be institutionalized. I wonder if Scorsese wanted to dabble with the concept of the unreliable narrator. The resolution does really read like Travis's ideal ending to a miserable situation. Does the movie really ending when Travis puts his fingers up to his temple and jokes about suicide? It seems like that's the natural ending to a murder spree like Travis has. I don't know. It reads really weird to me.
Taxi Driver is a much more complex film than I gave it credit for the first time I watched it. Again, I never trust what I say a decade before. I really liked the film this time. I know, it's still very uncomfortable to watch. But that's kind of the point. As a side note, can I tell you that Bernard Hermann's score to this movie reads really weird and I absolutely adore it? Regardless, Taxi Driver is the nuance that Joker is completely missing.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.