Martin Scorsese has had a long and legendary career in Hollywood, always following the principle that cinema is “about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted,” as he wrote in 2019. For some, those confrontations will always go too far: Every now and then, the loose-knit digital community referred to as Film Twitter dogpiles on a would-be critic who claims that Scorsese has a habit of endorsing or glamorizing the behavior of corrupt and violent men. To the old guard, this shows a failure of literacy — the director, they note, is at pains to weigh the guilt and consequences of the choices his characters make, and where they elude punishment, there is nonetheless an ironic sting to their fate.
This debate recycles in part because Scorsese has accidentally emerged as a prime dissenter in the franchise era of entertainment. The column linked above addresses his view of big-budget superhero fare as more akin to theme park rides than film — they lack, for one, the “emotional danger” that brings us back to the best thrillers even after we know all the twists. Marvel blockbusters are, of course, very popular, and their fans have tried to retaliate against Scorsese’s allegation of “sameness” in their extended universe with the accusation that he has made nothing but gratuitous movies about gangsters, and always mythologized them in the bargain. Two seconds on IMDb will remind you how reductive this is, but it’s not a discussion we’d still be having if Scorsese didn’t develop narratives of extreme moral tension. And none of his work has kept it going like Taxi Driver, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this week.
It should be said that for all its acclaim, the movie has always had its skeptics. The person caping for The Avengers by complaining about Taxi Driver’s toxic masculinity makes for a convenient punching bag; less so would the esteemed artists, critics and partners Patricia Patterson and Manny Farber, who in a piercing 1976 essay for Film Comment argued that its “immoral posture on the subject of Blacks, male supremacy, guns, women, subverts believability at every moment” in order to dwell on Robert De Niro as charismatic star. That is, De Niro might play a paranoid insomniac loner in Travis Bickle, the New York taxi driver who eventually embarks on a killing spree, but Scorsese’s direction and Paul Schrader’s screenplay can’t help centering him as the classic Hollywood cowboy, and his dazzling performance activates our need to empathize with the antihero.
The question is whether Taxi Driver can darkly satirize the grindhouse vigilante flicks of the time without becoming one itself. Bickle, a suffering Vietnam vet, does live among alienating vice and squalor, bereft of purpose in an urban wasteland. He turns homicidal as a result, which we condemn — but are his motivations sound?
Schrader, as Patterson and Farber note, drew inspiration for Bickle from the diary of Arther Bremer, who plotted to assassinate Richard Nixon and ultimately shot segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972, paralyzing him and wounding three bystanders. Taxi Driver, in turn, colored the delusions of John Hinckley Jr., who initially stalked actress Jodie Foster (in the film, she’s Iris, a sex-trafficked 12-year-old whom Bickle wants to save) before planning to kill Jimmy Carter and ultimately shooting Ronald Reagan and three others in 1981. The latter event is said to have prompted Scorsese to consider quitting filmmaking, and when the heavily Scorsese-indebted Joker came out in 2019, people worried it might inspire young men — particularly those of far-right internet communities — to take up arms against the outside world. This proved to be an alarmist position, and is perhaps a misunderstanding of the pattern.
Someone like Hinckley could borrow the symbols of Taxi Driver, yet underneath, he was driven by the kinds of mental and emotional instability that plagued Bremer before any such movie existed. It’s telling that with both gunmen, a quest for notoriety trumped partisan politics: They shifted targets, primarily concerned with headlines and attention, as mass shooters tend to be. So too does Bickle, thwarted in his attempts to assassinate a senator running for president, choose instead to kill Iris’ pimp and the rest of the men at her brothel, for which he tis valorized in the press — the final indication of a broken society that feeds on rage, gore and death.
We are left to believe he will one day snap again, only without the cushion of deferential police and fawning coverage to soften the landing. You can say the ending strains realism (it’s a movie, after all), and you can feel that it crosses any number of lines (the casting and use of Foster, the indulgent bloodletting, the overwhelming immersion in Bickle’s disturbed mind), though you cannot ever dismiss Taxi Driver in full, as the core of its anger remains frighteningly accurate to this country, its disaffected men and especially those compelled to vengeance.
Taxi Driver’s most famous sequence by far is De Niro’s improvisation in front of a mirror as he rehearses some future showdown that allows him to draw his weapon. “You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here,” he points out, chillingly apropos of his isolation. It’s a scene that tells us that his urge to harm someone, and look cool while doing it, outweighs the details of that encounter: It’s raw malice in search of a story that flatters it.
This reminds me, now, of the images you find in the social media of men who went on rampages or joined extremist actions, as the late Kevin Greeson did by joining a pro-Trump mob that attempted to overturn the 2020 election at the U.S. Capitol. Posing with firearms, profane bluster, vain machismo and the fantasy climax of gunning down your degenerate foes — all of these are Travis Bickle. Greeson, like many MAGA insurrectionists, had his own frustrations stoked and exploited by right-wing media until he could envision the triumph of revolt against democracy itself. Despite a history of high blood pressure — his wife didn’t want him to take part — he had to be in attendance for what he saw as a “monumental event,” since this was the shape his arc had taken, as surely as Bickle aligns himself against the sleazy underbelly of the city. Greeson died of a heart attack minutes before rioters forced their way into the Capitol. What’s left are his threats to the mirror.
This, nearly half a century on, is the staying power of Taxi Driver, which at a different angle may seem an artifact inseparable from its moment, or the decay and nihilism of its street milieu. But what, if anything, has negated the premise of a male misanthrope, drifting and unraveling, who begins to hone the fury within — a self-hatred, really — and chooses, at last, to aim it outward?
Each terrorist has taken a journey of that sort. Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro went to the fearsome depths of the process, and trapped us there. No wonder it can be hard to take.