A neon nightmare baptized in blood, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver took up residence in the national psyche when it was first released in the spring of 1976. It’s no wonder the 20th-anniversary rerelease feels like an act of redundancy: This is a movie that never went away. For two decades, we’ve seen it on video, watched it in repertory houses, and heard Travis Bickle’s famous into-the-mirror come-on — ”You talkin’ to me?” — turned into a cool mantra of existential paranoia, one imitated everywhere from college dorm rooms to Saturday Night Live. We’ve seen the movie’s hallucinatory virtuosity mimicked by a generation of film brats (notably Scorsese’s cinematic godson, Quentin Tarantino), who fetishize every shot of it, elevating its feral, sensualized depiction of New York City’s underbelly into a kind of grunge textbook, a bible of audiovisual poetics. Hollywood, it’s said, no longer wants to make movies as dark and uncompromising as Taxi Driver. The irony is how prophetically Scorsese and his screenwriter, Paul Schrader, anticipated the mood of the ’90s — nervous and festering, a dream on the edge of dissolution.
Seeing the film again, in the superb new Dolbyized print that has been made for the rerelease, I was struck by the astonishing array of moods in Robert De Niro’s performance: now haunted, now suave, now doofy, now terrified, now homicidal. Travis’ problem is that his moods don’t quite mesh. He’s a wheel with different personalities jutting out like spokes, a short-circuited soul waiting to be rewired. The dramatic coup of Taxi Driver is the way it places us directly inside Travis Bickle’s mind, making his inability to connect to another human being as riveting to behold as the most intimate love affair. The real relationship is between De Niro’s eyes and the audience: We’re watching him watch the world. Scorsese is watching him too, trying, in every scene, to crack this nutcase open. Message to Marty: You’ll make a great movie again, but only when you dare get as close to another character as you did to Travis Bickle.