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
The Mastered in 4K edition of 'Taxi Driver' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The stunning video quality of the original 'Taxi Driver' Blu-ray release earned a well-deserved five-star rating, so I was anxious to see whether the Mastered in 4K edition could in any way improve upon it. After a close comparison, I honestly couldn't detect much of a difference, which isn't surprising considering both releases were struck from the same 4K source. The dazzling clarity, sumptuous color, and impeccable contrast of the original release are all present in the Mastered in 4K transfer, along with the marvelous grain structure, which lends the image appropriate texture and warmth. Maybe the Mastered in 4K version is a tad brighter and colors comes across slightly bolder, but the enhancements are so minor they're virtually imperceptible and are solely due to the higher bitrate of the Mastered in 4K disc. (Without any supplements taking up precious disc space, the movie's picture quality should, in theory, increase, but the improvements are subtle, and often only the most perceptive and discriminating viewer can fully appreciate them. In short, they don't live up to the hype.)
Many elements on the original Blu-ray look just the same here, and that's a very good thing. The intentionally blurred city lights in the movie's opening sequence are crisply rendered, as are details such as rain droplets, the chipped and cracked paint in Travis' ramshackle apartment, and the clutter on Betsy's office desk. Hues often dazzle, such as Betsy's red and white patterned dress, the deep red walls in Palantine's headquarters, the sleek mustard-colored taxi cabs, and Tom's cool pastel shirts. Fabrics, such as Travis' corduroy jacket, perhaps possess more vibrancy here, and background details are about as well-defined as possible, helping to provide a palpable sense of depth.
Once again, 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 clarity. Whites are cool, but never harsh; Shepherd's dress stands out well against the busy background of the cityscape while maintaining a lovely softness, and fleshtones are always spot-on. Close-ups exude a marvelous immediacy, with every skin blemish and hair follicle clear and distinct.
And just as I stated in my review of the original Blu-ray transfer, the most indelible impression this Mastered in 4K 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 the studio's 1970s Blu-ray gems, 'Kramer vs. Kramer.'
If you already own the previous Blu-ray edition of 'Taxi Driver,' there's absolutely no need to upgrade. And if you don't, I'd still recommend purchasing the 2011 disc, which features comparable video, as well as a hefty helping of extras, collectible photos, and classy packaging. Yet for those first-timers only interested in the movie, by all means pick up the Mastered in 4K edition. You won't be disappointed and you won't regret it.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is identical to the one included on the original Blu-ray release, and 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.
There are no supplements whatsoever on this Mastered in 4K release. If fans choose to upgrade, be sure and keep the previous edition, which is packed with extras and collectibles.
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 37 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. This Mastered in 4K edition features the same impeccable video quality as the original Blu-ray, but not enough noticeable differences to warrant an upgrade. Even if you've never seen or owned 'Taxi Driver' before, I'd suggest sticking with the first Blu-ray release, which contains a wealth of engrossing supplements, classy packaging, and several collectible photos. This 4K movie-only version is only for completists or those who don't care about extras or packaging or own cutting edge equipment that might - and only might - better capture the subtle transfer enhancements.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.