Warned by my son into thinking this film would be too violent and ugly for me, I put off watching it until now and I have to tell you, five minutes of “Gamer of Thrones” was worse. It seems that time has either desensitized me or violence has grown to the point where a few murders of bad guys don’t seem so terrible.
Anyway, I watched and liked it a lot, a real lot. Scorcese refers to Hitchcock constantly, partly because the back of the taxi is like the windows in “Rear Window,” where you only get a tiny bit of the lives of his passengers,(Scorcese in a Hitch-like cameo) partly because he constantly lays down red herrings and not least because he uses Bernard Hermann, Hitchcock’s favorite composer, to create a brilliant ominous score.
Travis Bickle clearly suffers from what we would call today PTSD. An honorable discharge from the Marines, no less, leaves him with sleepless nights, perhaps from a war, perhaps even from the War in Vietnam, and an inability to connect. He finds it hard to figure out what to say to a girl he very much likes (Cybil Shepherd) and where to take her. In one of the funniest bits, he decides on a porn film and can’t understand why she walks out.
All of this is subtext, but we get it. The vapid, meaningless speeches from The Candidate form a background of sinister political goings-on that compare nicely with the open violence and ugliness Travis sees on the streets every night and perhaps what he saw during the war. He drives all night long through the worst neighborhoods unfazed. This Marine vet can’t seem to find a mission.
When Scorcese leads us to think that Travis may be on his way to becoming a mass murderer, it’s hard to accept, because he has been set up as a decent, if inarticulate guy. The mass murderer suggestion is of course, a red herring, and Travis in fact protects a young prostitute played by Jodie Foster and kills her pimp and various other rotten characters. He does what we all long to do but can’t and ends up becoming a hero. Nobody checks to see if his pile of guns is registered or why he did this; everyone takes it for granted that it’s ok to kill the bad guys. In a sweet ending, the girl who walked out on him comes back once he’s a celebrity. He drives on.
The performances are brilliant. Harvey Keitel is the personification of evil, especially when he comforts the young prostitute he profits from. Robert DeNiro is unbelievably young and talented and can those be dimples we see when he finally smiles at the end? The only criticism I could find was that some of the semi-improvised scenes between DeNiro and Keitel went on a little long, but who can blame the director when he had two such great actors?
By today’s standards, this film has very little violence and we the viewers feel it’s justified. See what you think.