Graeme Robertson with four great films about loners…
Do you ever feel lonely dear readers? Do you ever sometimes feel that you just don’t quite fit in with the rest of the world?
I’ll admit that I sometimes I feel this way in certain situations. Often at a social event like a party or whatever, I’m the guy who stands quietly in the corner, saying little and drinking excessively to try and calm my nerves, all the while panicking that everyone else at the party is secretly muttering things about me behind my back and that they all might just dislike me intensely.
Now I’d like to think that this is not an unusual feeling to have. After all, I’m sure that everyone feels a sense of loneliness from time to time, but most of us are able to soothe that discomfort with the love of our family and our friends. However, we sometimes can’t help shake the strange feeling that we might just be a loner.
The story of the loner has been the focus of books, TV shows and films for decades and it’s a type of character that I’ve always found fascinating in the manner that storytellers will try to get us to understand their world view and perhaps emphasise or sympathise with them. The loner is a character who can flit between genres, from goofy heart-warming comedies in which they manage to find companionship, to dark and complex dramas in which they might feel a desire to get back at the world that has rejected them.
In this particular series, I’m going to take a look at 4 films that follow the exploits of the slightly more unnerving of societal outcasts that I think perfectly encapsulate the darker side of loneliness.
Taxi Driver (1976)
If you’re looking at the darker side of loneliness we often picture that of the angry, isolated and deluded individual. One who feels that the world owes him something. That the world is somehow caught in a spiral of destruction, and that only they can see the squalid state of society around them and they feel that only they know what needs to be done to clean the world up.
And if you’re going to look at the dark side of loneliness, no man better encapsulates this dark world view than the figure of Travis Bickle, the twisted star of Martin Scorsese’s dark 1976 classic Taxi Driver.
The film follows Travis Bickle an alienated and desolate loner who gets a job driving a taxicab in New York City, carrying around the various crooks, pimps, drunks and politicians that populate the city. Disgusted and angered by the sleaze, crime and the overall diseased and corrupted state of the city, Bickle takes it upon himself to try and save the life of Iris, a young underage prostitute, in the hopes that by doing so he can perhaps rid the city of its corruption and decay.
What more can be said about Robert De Niro’s now iconic performance as Travis Bickle? People have critiqued, analysed and written whole articles about the brilliance of both DeNiro’s performance and of the various facets of the character of Bickle himself, and I feel that anything I write will simply be a regurgitation of what has been said before.
Bickle is a truly fascinating character to study, with De Niro’s expert portrayal managing to capture both the explicit aspects of the character, such as his anger with the world and his violent desire to “wash away the filth”, as well as his understated aspects such as Travis’s heavily implied racism, note the rather hostile manner in which he looks at African-Americans in various scenes. He doesn’t say a single word that suggests his racism, but his face, and the way the film frames his view of African-Americans tell a very different story.
Many have written about the various ways to interpret the character of Travis Bickle. Some range from the fairly simple, with him being seen as an allegory for the alienation felt by veterans of the Vietnam War, who returned from overseas not to the heroes welcome granted to the veterans of World War II, but instead with resentment, mistrust and ignorance, with it suggested that Travis himself is a veteran with his mention of having been in the Marines.
However, others take a much more philosophical and sociological perspective viewing the character as something of a study on the nature of masculinity, to name but one among many interpretations.
These fascinating perspectives are well worth a read on their own, and the film has been the focus of more than a handful of really interesting YouTube video essays that I highly recommend watching. I especially recommend the highly detailed and brilliant analysis by the YouTube user Channel Criswell, which offers a far better analysis of the film than I ever could.
While De Niro’s iconic performance dominates the film, he is backed up by a terrific supporting including Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Cybil Shepard and Albert Brooks. While all those actors are great in their roles, it is Jodie Foster as the young prostitute Iris, who gives the best turn of the film after De Niro, with her being incredibly sympathetic, likeable and tragic. It’s a terrific performance from a talented actress at the start of what would become and still is a stellar career, even if it did inadvertently lead one oddball to try and shoot the US President.
Taxi Driver also plays host to what is quite possibly one of the most memorable director cameo’s of all time, with Martin Scorsese himself taking on the role of a particularly nasty customer in Travis’s cab, who lets it known that he intends to kill his wife. It’s a great turn that I think demonstrates that Scorsese could have easily been a modestly successful actor if his directing career didn’t take off.
I adore the visual style of the film, with Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman carefully crafting a visual palate that makes the seedy side of New York city truly come alive. The various shots from Travis’s cab overlooking the rather sleazy sights on display really capture the dark and hostile manner in which Bickle views the world, and I also imagine it didn’t make the New York tourist board too happy either with the film making the Big Apple looking truly rotten to the core.
I also really love the incredibly overheard slow motion tracking shot in the film’s blood-soaked finale with a that follows the path of destruction that Travis has created in his effort to save Iris from her pimps. That shot of De Niro pointing his bloody finger to his head to mimic a gun is a chilling sight that I feel captures the madness of the character perfectly.
Much like the characters and the themes, the visual approach taken by Scorsese in making the film has been studied to death by journalists and academics, trying to understand exactly what everything means and what Scorsese is trying to tell us. Again, I’m nowhere near smart enough to examine these aspects, and even if I could this article would be thousands of words long, and I’ve still got three more films to talk about. Needless to say though, Taxi Driver is a visual masterpiece that perfectly exudes a sense of noir style darkness and mystery, with a strong dreamlike atmosphere to it. It also looks fantastic on Blu-ray.
Aside from the film’s incredible visuals, praise should also be given to Bernard Hermann’s incredible musical score, with the composer’s final work being a beautiful jazzy dream for the ears that perfectly captures the noirish, dreamy atmosphere. I cannot adequately describe how much love this score other than that it’s easily one of my favourite film scores of all time. Even if you have no desire in watching the film, you’ll be doing yourself a grave disservice to not at least give a listen to the film’s amazing opening theme.
Like just about every film critic whose ever written about this film, I could go on for days talking about the brilliance of Taxi Driver. A dark study of a lonely man on the edge of madness that grips you from the minute the slow drumming of the film’s score starts that it never lets up for a moment, perfectly complimented by one of the finest actors of all time giving one of the most iconic performances of all time.
Taxi Driver is without a doubt one of the greatest films ever made and one of my all time favourites.