There I was, fully engaged with this terrific portrait of white male psychopathy. Robert De Niro’s performance – at once vacant and fiercely intense – does the business as taxi driver Travis Bickle. But the writing is good too. We understand Bickle’s thoughts, his actions, his desperation, completely. A former marine who drives all night because he can’t sleep. A loner who obsesses about women, but has zero interest in the minds of others. A man with no passions, whose only idea of a movie is a porno. A cabbie who grows to despise the nighthawks that treat him like trash, which also informs his broiling racism. A schizoid who doesn’t realise just how sick he is. It’s a thorough examination of a broken man, and only heading in one direction. Then it chickened out. The introduction of a subplot involving a child prostitute confuses its final act, rehabilitating Bickle’s fractured rage as righteous indignation. Its final scenes go even further, attempting to manufacture ostensible moral ambiguity. There was nothing morally ambiguous about its parting shots; to be morally ambiguous you have to have something to say. Sometimes psychos kill bad people and not good ones because senatorial security beats a pimp’s? Yeeah. As a self-contained character study of an absolute on the fringes, this shines. As a thought-provoking social commentary, not so much.
A superb movie, but then you probably already knew that. My thoughts? Objectification of women, taken to its logical extreme by the serial killing culprit, was the strongest impression I had. Crucially, this impression wasn’t built solely from the smorgasbord of psychopaths on display — any film can present an objectionable viewpoint from the position of a Bad Man and not provoke much in the way of debate. It’s in the “good” and the bad. Chief among the director’s weapons is a lingering POV, most eye-catching when framing the electrifying one-on-one scenes between Jodie Foster’s Clarise and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal. So magnetic are these scenes one could easily miss how important the same technique is in the gaps in-between. Men hitting on an attractive young woman in a professional setting might be an all-too common, nauseating experience for the latter. But the effect of the camera, always intimate enough to suggest every nervous, unsettling desire, always held just slightly longer than one feels comfortable with, imparts that queer ill-ease on the viewer. Dialogue also deserves a mention for its role in this. Even the most cordial of interactions near the end is lent such a dimension by one of Hannibal’s earlier taunts, “Jack Crawford is helping your career isn’t he? Apparently he likes you and you like him too”. Suggesting, almost slyly, that less separates his primeval bestiality from the rest of us than you might think.
I was less onboard for the final act. Changing gears immediately and decisively from psychological drama into action thriller, the latter was a touch too thriller finale by numbers for my taste, lacking some of the guile that marked its contemplative mode – but not without its share of gratifying thrills. It’s a relatively minor gripe for a movie that’ll command your attention with steely authority in the manner of its two leads – there’s not a second they’re on screen that your eyes won’t be.