With apologies to James Joyce, 'A Portrait of a Psychotic Vigilante as a Young Man' might be a good subtitle for Martin Scorsese's 1976 masterwork, 'Taxi Driver.' Though Paul Schrader's dialogue might not sound as lyrical as the immortal Irish author's esteemed prose, it's nevertheless hypnotic and poetic, terse and direct...just like the cinematic style of Scorsese. Over the years, many fine directors have fashioned fine films from fine screenplays, but rarely has a script so perfectly suited the vision and style of a director, and rarely has the perfect actor also played the lead role. All the pieces of the puzzle snap snugly together on 'Taxi Driver,' making it not just an artistic triumph, but also a supremely absorbing, layered, and, yes, entertaining motion picture.
Sure, we all remember Robert De Niro aiming his gun, sizing up an imaginary assailant with wide eyes and a slightly crazed smirk on his face, and asking that loaded question, "You talkin' to me?" It's an iconic movie moment and quote, much like "Rosebud," "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," and "Go ahead, make my day," but it doesn't define 'Taxi Driver.' The blossoming talent of Scorsese does, coupled with a timely, and in many ways timeless, story that continues to strike a nerve and provoke spirited discussion about society, law and order, and the complex circuitry of the human brain 35 years after its premiere. And without De Niro's mesmerizing portrayal of the isolated, tortured, and disturbed Travis Bickle, it's difficult to determine whether the film would wield the same degree of impact.
A Vietnam War veteran, Travis epitomizes the lost, disassociated, often aimless men who returned home from an ugly, traumatic conflict and found it difficult to assimilate into organized society. He applies for a taxi driving job to try and escape his lonely and monotonous existence, as well as the nagging demons that needle him, and as he scrutinizes life from behind the wheel of his iron coffin, he's repulsed by the filth of both the New York streets and the human condition. Someone needs to clean it all up, he tells himself, planting a seed that will grow into a mission later on. Hope, however, in the form of cool blonde beauty Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who works for a promising political candidate, briefly buoys Travis' spirits, but his inability to properly relate to her spurs a rapid inward retreat and ignites the smoldering violent tendencies lurking in his soul.
The bloodbath that comprises the 'Taxi Driver' climax often overshadows the nuances that distinguish the bulk of the film, and that's a shame, because the movie's meat lies in its impeccable depiction of character. With methodical grace and searing insight, Scorsese and De Niro subtly paint a complex portrait of a man on the edge and the forces that lead him to the breaking point. Scorsese takes it slow, allowing us to get under Travis' skin and see the world through his warped perspective. We feel his desolation, the mounting fatalism and paranoia that consume him, and how the claustrophobic atmosphere of the cab and his tiny apartment turn him into a caged animal desperate to break out of his self-imposed incarceration. As usual, Scorsese - aided immeasurably by cinematographer Michael Chapman - finds a way to make the repugnant strangely elegant and seductive, and the images he composes of New York's underbelly, coupled with the smooth jazz strains and dramatic accents of Bernard Herrmann's final score, heighten our connection to the material. Though his style doesn't flaunt the flash that would distinguish - and, at times, overshadow - his later works, it's no less impressive.
Of course, it's impossible to imagine anyone other than De Niro as Travis. Few other actors can convey such complexity with so little outward expression, and though his character is by turns creepy, pathetic, and edgy, he easily engenders our sympathy. De Niro never sugarcoats Travis, he merely makes him fascinating, a cryptic jumble of contradictions we all want to figure out. Since the movie opened 35 years ago, we've seen a lot of Travis Bickles on film and in real life, but De Niro crafted the mold, and his impression is the one that's most firmly etched in our collective consciousness.
The supporting cast never eclipses De Niro, but the stellar work of Jodie Foster as a child prostitute, Harvey Keitel as her pimp, Shepherd as the elusive, uptight beauty, Albert Brooks as her nerdy colleague, Peter Boyle as a pontificating cabbie, and even Scorsese himself in a cameo as one of Travis' weirdo passengers incisively complements his performance, drawing us deeper into his quiet, troubled existence. At the time, none of these actors were big stars, and it's a testament to Scorsese's eye and influence that all went on to have major careers.
Only in America could an antihero, in the blink of an eye, become a hero. 'Taxi Driver' shows us - long before "15 minutes of fame" became a household phrase, let alone an aspiration - our society's desperate need for connection and attention, and its fickle obsession with those, normal and unbalanced, who seek it. Long ago, it inspired a sick individual to shoot a sitting president. Today, it merely inspires admiration - for its craft, structure, performances, and depiction of utter isolation, paranoia, and the twisted perceptions of a lost soul. Make no mistake, it's much more than a vigilante film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony gives 'Taxi Driver' the Cadillac treatment, producing a classy collector's edition that combines the elegance and weight of a digibook with the more traditional tri-fold packaging. Raised lettering adds luster to the front cover, while the back cover and inside flap feature black-and-white photos of various characters. When fully open, sepia-toned photos line the panels; the 50-GB dual-layer disc is affixed to the left panel, and tucked inside the right panel is a collection of 12 high-quality 5x7 photos on semi-gloss stock in both color and black-and-white. There's a poster reproduction, a beautiful color portrait of Shepherd, a "candid" of De Niro and Scorsese conferring on set, several dynamic stills of De Niro with his firearms, and a color picture of the famous climactic overhead shot, among others. Video codec is 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC and primary audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Upon insertion, the full-motion menu with music pops up immediately following the Sony logo; no previews or promos precede it.
Who knew grit and grime could look so beautiful? 'Taxi Driver' showcases some of the seediest areas of 1970s New York, but Sony's striking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer captures it all with marvelous clarity, stunning depth, and well-modulated hues. Grain is an essential aspect of this film, yet it never overpowers the image. As a result, the picture sports a consistently natural, film-like look that draws us deep into the Big Apple's core and Travis' twisted psyche. The intentionally blurred city lights in the movie's opening sequence are crisply rendered, as are details such as rain droplets, while nicely graded contrast lends the overall picture surprising dimensionality for such an aged film. The source material looks as clean and vibrant as any recent release, with no blemishes of any kind catching the eye.
Colors appear bright and bold, but thankfully lack any hint of artificiality. The reds in Palantine's political office enjoy fine presence, and the yellows of the omnipresent taxi cabs look lush yet realistic. Black levels are deep and inky, and though one might think the predominance of nocturnal scenes would yield a few murky shots or incidents of crush, every nighttime sequence brims with well-defined details. Whites are cool, but never harsh; Shepherd's dress stands out well against the busy background of the cityscape while maintaining a lovely softness. Background elements occasionally look a bit fuzzy, but that's a minor quibble, and fleshtones are always spot-on. Close-ups exude a marvelous immediacy, with every skin blemish and hair follicle clear and distinct.
Yet the most indelible impression this transfer makes is the wonderful texture that enhances every frame. Rarely do high-definition movies look so much like celluloid, while maintaining the sharpness that's such a vital component of the Blu-ray format. And Sony has taken extra special care to keep the film's original look intact, steering away from edge enhancement, noise reduction, and other fine tuning elements. Banding and mosquito noise are also absent from this superior effort from Sony, which ranks up there with another of its 1970s Blu-ray gems, 'Kramer vs. Kramer.' Not only has 'Taxi Driver' never looked better, it's also one of most faithful and satisfying transfers of a film from this era that I've seen.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also top-notch. Though surround activity is limited, the excellent fidelity, dynamic range, and purity of tone, especially with regard to Bernard Herrmann's sultry, silky score, make the audio sound like it was recorded yesterday instead of 35 years ago. Herrmann's music, which combines dramatic elements of his classic Hitchcock scores with smooth, jazzy horns (I cannot get enough of the recurring theme), dominates this track, but the subtleties of the New York streets, bursts of gunfire, and voiceover narration all possess terrific clarity and presence. Dialogue is often spoken softly or delivered in an offhand manner, yet I never had to strain to understand the words. And though there are no thunderous bass moments that set off the subwoofer, low-end tones are warm and weighty, consistently complementing the rest of the audio. Distortion and surface defects are totally absent, making this track as immersive and pleasing as the video.
A huge supplemental package examines multiple aspects of this fascinating film, heightening both our understanding of its themes and admiration for the talents involved. All the material is absorbing and classily produced.
The second commentary is a solo track by author Robert Kolker, who takes on the role of film professor as he delves into Scorsese's style, the fine points of plot and character, and the director's storytelling technique. He also notes the influence of such films as 'Psycho' and 'The Searchers' on 'Taxi Driver.' This is a much drier track, and a bit too didactic at times, but if you're looking for more narrative analysis, then this discussion fills the bill.
The final commentary is a more recent solo track by Schrader, who dissects his script and provides the writer's perspective on filmmaking. He offers up some screenwriting tips, admits he got into scriptwriting as a form of "self-therapy" (not for monetary gain), and debunks censorship as a means of keeping real-life psychopaths from emulating and imitating those depicted on screen. Schrader makes some good points, but too many lengthy gaps separate them, making this track a bit of a chore to slog through.
The 1970s gave us many great films, and 'Taxi Driver' is indisputably one of them. Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Score (Scorsese, in the first of many Oscar snubs, was inexplicably overlooked), this unsettling yet marvelously mounted and performed motion picture still provokes the same strong reactions as it did upon its initial release 35 years ago. Call him a psycho, call him a devil-turned-savior, call him a paranoid vigilante, but any way you look at him, Travis Bickle is one memorable character, and De Niro makes him unforgettable. Sony pulls out all the stops, honoring this Scorsese masterwork with top-flight video and audio, hefty supplements, and beautiful packaging. Without a doubt, this is one of the year's best Blu-rays - a movie to own, examine, and scrutinize.