After seeing Martin Scorsese's excellent "Bringing Out the Dead", I was struck with the desire to see his 1976 movie "Taxi Driver". These two films are very similar in tone and content, with good reason. They were both directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader (who also scripted "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" for Scorsese), and both films involve a voyage through the Hell's Kitchen area of New York that would have Dante cowering in a corner sucking his thumb. However, as good as "Bringing Out the Dead" is, it is not a classic. While these films are similar in content, "Taxi Driver" is by far the superior film.
"Taxi Driver" is the story of Travis Bickle, an ex-marine Vietnam vet who starts driving a cab because of his inability to sleep at night. Bickle has problems connecting with others; he spends most of his days driving a cab or sitting in a porno theater. Bickle becomes increasingly disillusioned with life in New York, with good reason. The city shown in "Taxi Driver" is a cesspool of human misery, where murders and robberies occur in broad daylight, and "all the animals come out at night." The city belongs to the hoodlums, the pimps, and the hookers. Bickle starts hoping for that "some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets." Eventually, Travis admits that "I got some bad ideas in my head," and realizes that he must be that cleansing rain. He buys weapons and starts training as if he is back in Vietnam. Hollywood often has a glamorized view of vigilantes, portraying them as idealistic superheroes such as Batman. Travis Bickle is in no way glamorous. He is just as depraved as the people he condemns.
This is one of the reasons that "Taxi Driver" is a better film that "Bringing Out the Dead." Both films are intimate portraits of a trip through hell. But "Bringing Out the Dead" merely shows us the hell. In "Taxi Driver", we are inside the cab with Travis, experiencing it with him. We are sucked into Travis Bickle's world, and we go through hell with him. Travis Bickle is a movie icon, as memorable as Indiana Jones, Hal 9000, or Hannibal Lector. Bickle's influence even extends into the "real" world: John Hinckley was misguidedly imitating Bickle when he tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. While "Bringing Out the Dead" is a fascinating character study of Frank Pierce, "Taxi Driver" has literally created an legend indelibly stamped on the American conscious. Bickle's "You talking to me?" monologue is one of the most oft-quoted lines in movie history. Robert DeNiro's gives the performance of his career (which is saying a lot), crafting an anti-hero who is as sympathetic as he is horrible. As talented as Nicholas Cage is in "Bringing Out the Dead", he is unable to touch DeNiro's performance.
The final message of the film is ambiguous. Bickle is horrible and psychotic, but there's also a strange and perverse sanity to his actions. He is charming and scary. While "Bringing Out the Dead" is one of the better movies of this year, "Taxi Driver" will remain Scorsese's best.
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