In pursuit of understanding why Martin Scorsese is a great director, I rented one of his classics, Taxi Driver (1976), and I think I get his legacy now.
One of the beautiful things about Taxi Driver, and the thing that stuck with me after I finished watching it, was how subtle and ambiguous it was. We don't really know the main character Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) that well and are given scraps to piece together. Things we learn about him in the film: he went to Vietnam as a marine, he's having trouble sleeping, he watches hard core films in his spare time, he works long hours at nights in the trashiest neighborhoods of New York (despite his hatred for them), and his only friends--if you can call them that--are other Taxi Drivers. We also see his inability to not be off-putting to both women and men; he's hopelessly awkward in the creepiest way. He also writes down his thoughts in a well written and honest journal. Throughout this, the camera, not to mention De Niro's listless inattention, effectively isolates Travis from his surrounding environment. From this we can create our own character from what these actions imply: 1) Travis is probably screwed up from the war, 2) he's probably extremely lonely, and 3) he wants to do something good for the world/somebody.
Unfortunately, his attempts at doing something good end are unsolicited and somewhat terrifying.His journal entries, read effectively in a conversational sort of dictation by De Niro, hint at things deeply felt and unsatisfied. The narration is the eeriest part of the film, and I couldn't help thinking that Travis was the basis for Watchmen's Rorschach, the character also expressing through a journal a loathing for the rotting city and a capacity for violence.
And when that violence plays out, it's haunting. Like other Scorsese films I've seen, the violence is given full screen time, with no hiding. In this case, the violence is bloody and sloppy.By the end of it, we see a birds-eye-view of the scene that almost lovingly goes over each body, each bullet wound. I'm never sure how Scorsese feels about violence--whether or not he condones it, because he never seems to outright condemn it--and this film is no exception. Although for me, Taxi Driver is at least disturbing in idea, if not emotion toward the violence.
By the end of the film, we see that Travis is lauded as a hero. It seems only the film's audience who was privy to his journals and private acts know that it probably wasn't just heroism that motivated his actions; something is terribly wrong with him, but we don't know what. We end up asking, what happens if he reaches that breaking point again?