Exhibit A for the deification of '70s Hollywood, Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese's 1976 vision of hell as New York nightlife, holds up remarkably well as a portrait of a uniquely American brand of rage and resentment. Maybe too well. Whenever creepy loners practice their death strikes in front of the mirror, from Bernhard Goetz to John Hinckley, it's Robert De Niro's wiry angel of doom they see staring back. Forget that scowling, mugging, grumpy dude from the Fockers movies: this hails from the period when De Niro was the most electrifying actor in movies, a live wire whose every improvisatory impulse crackled with threat.
De Niro's cabbie-as-warped-crusader, Travis Bickle, roams a festering city of night-shuttling scum and preteen whores (the latter represented by 12-year-old Jodie Foster, whose ease in the role still produces unease in viewers). Imagining himself as God's angry man, the scourging rain that will wash the streets, Travis is a corroded urban descendant of the lone Westerner who lives outside society and above the law, like John Wayne's deranged tracker in The Searchers.
Working from a serrated Paul Schrader script soaked in coke and flop sweat, Scorsese prowls the zone where the rugged individualism of such a man morphs into the I-stand-alone fury of America's lunatic fringe — its ticking human bombs, its assassins. In the process, he stakes his claim as the movies' poet of suffocation. With cinematographer Michael Chapman and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose downbeat score (his last) mixes jazzy melancholia and psychotic-break blares, he creates a richly toxic atmosphere of steam, noir shadowscapes and barely suppressed savagery.
Schrader's screenplay was influenced equally by Bresson's Pickpocket and by the diaries of George Wallace's assassin Arthur Bremer. Between those spiritual extremes, the movie finds no redemption, only catharsis — and a temporary one at that. Those who read the movie as a celebration of gun worship and vigilantism miss the point of the ironic climax: The difference between being a murderer and a hero, in such a culture, is killing the right person. The message isn't lost on the movie's mad-dog cult following — and it wasn't lost on Goetz, either.