'Taxi Driver' retains power Movie review: You might see this film differently after two decades, but if Travis Bickle bothered you the first time, he'll do it again in a remastered version at the Charles.

April 28, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

He wanted to know: "Are you talking to me?" But he hadn't said it quite right, so he tried it again.

"Are you talking to me?"

Nope. Still not right. Try again.

"Are you talking to me?"

Travis liked that one better. Standing there in front of the mirror, he liked the look of incredulity that came across his face, then transmuted in a firing synapse's time-span toward hostility, but, like, cool hostility -- hostility in command. And from there it was a simple matter to get the gun out, the big one, the .44 Magnum with the 8-inch barrel, one of three he carried in "Taxi Driver."

"Are you talking to me?"

But nobody was. Nobody ever did. That was the problem.

The words did not connect Travis to society, no matter how tenuously. No, they were a part of his fantasy mechanism, part of the program by which he could bestir himself from lethargy and indolence into an avatar of action, which, alas, he could not confine within the bounds of his own mind.

With Travis, it was an obsession with slights -- minor, almost accidental tremors of disrespect -- that he used to propel himself toward mega-violence to no good end except his own self-expression. With Lee Harvey Oswald, it was a crazed interpretation of Marxism. James Earl Ray was possessed by the demon of racism; Sirhan Sirhan was the avenger of Palestinian wrongs.

Travis merely reflected them, but in the reflection was a purer kind of truth: He was the quintessential troubled loner, haunting our century since at least 1963, and possibly earlier.

He's back. He's back in the form of Theodore Kaczynski, purported Unabomber. And Tim McVeigh, purported Oklahoma City Bomber. But he's back in his purest and most inviolate form in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," where he's named Travis Bickle -- a character inspired by one assassination attempt who in turn inspired another one, certainly as unique a claim as can be made in film history.

The 1976 film, in a restored and remastered version, is now at the Charles, where its enigmas continue to haunt, and where its inner meanings remain as obscure. For it asks the crucial question, which cannot really be answered: Why?

Really, isn't that the big one? What is it that turns one embittered nerd -- one among millions of such desperate souls, including at one time or other, all of us -- from his loneliness and litany of grudges into an actual killer?

Scorsese's movie, from a script by Paul Schrader, attempts to answer the question, but it can get no further than a description, vividly accurate, but in the end unpenetrative.

The movie takes the classic text of the madman's journal, inspired as much by Dostoevski as by Arthur Bremer, as its spine. Bremer was the loner who for obscure reasons roamed through the political year 1972 with a trunkful of guns until chance finally put him in a parking lot in Laurel with Gov. George Wallace. Bremer, politically uninformed, wanted merely to count for something; six shots later, he was world-famous, and he still languishes in a Maryland penitentiary.

Just as Bremer recorded his utter banalities and insipid mock-insights in a pitiful handwritten diary, so does Scorsese's Bickle.

Backdrop is New York

But to Bremer's madness Scorsese adds another dimension, one might say another dementia: Instead of transpiring against the backdrop of small-beer suburbs and anonymous expressway exchanges, Travis' odyssey is set against the caldron of New York City, a city throbbing with brutal sexuality and violence, a city down whose mean streets whip the vapors of madness, anomie, chaos, disconnection.

Through Scorsese's gliding camera and Michael Chapman's rich, dark and troubling cinematography, one can hear the city singing its mad melody to Travis, urging him ever onward, making each step of his journey seem inevitable, even natural.

Seen today, "Taxi Driver" still has the intensity of a fever dream, and its invocation of the swelter and weirdness of Manhattan remains just as mesmerizing.

It retains its power and its strange luminosity, so that it seems in some ways more like a fantasy than a reality. Its technique continues to astonish.

Its climax -- a massively brutal explosion of gunfire and mayhem in a sleazy brothel -- remains just as shattering, particularly with an emphasis still mind-boggling on the damage that bullets can do to bodies.

And the ironic coda, in which Travis is magically restored to health and sanity, seems just as phony and pointless, a true act of movie desperation.

But now the movie feels different, for some reason. Possibly it's a lack of context, a lack of ready connection between a life it portrays and the life so many of us live. Possibly it's that the '70s, with their embittered memories of the '60s, turned into the '90s, with their hazy memories of the '80s.

Perhaps it's that everybody's older, especially De Niro, who in "Taxi Driver" seems so callow, unlined unformed and pristine, he's almost a fetus.

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