Of all the brilliant films made by Martin Scorsese, this one to me is his most potent and haunting in its effect. The setting is 1970's New York, but in truth it could be anywhere, as it really concerns one man's isolation into his own personal hell, created (in part) by the society around him.
At its centre is a definitively intense performance by Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle; in essence an ordinary man (as the poster suggests) but with that explosive element hidden underneath - even in his gentle moments you sense an uneasiness. The idea for the film was borne out of the mind - one might say the soul - of writer Paul Schrader, after a particularly desolate spell of isolation, out of which came this searing screenplay with an uncomfortably real feel to it.
Scorsese's terrifying moodpiece is made that way by colourfully seedy photography by Michael Chapman and a brooding, menacing and typically eccentric score by the late Bernard Herrmann, whose last great contribution to cinema this was (passing away in 1975 before the film's release.) His score conveys not only the menace of the city streets, but also a nostalgia for that transitional era of 1960s/70s New York, with a lovely lingering jazz nighttime theme, ostensibly for the character of Betsy (as played by Cybill Shepherd), whom Travis adores from afar.
Like most elements of the city however, Bickle is set apart from her, as detached from the city and yet as much a part of it in the taxi he drives every night, with the various ill-assorted customers who sit in his back seat - including an aspiring politician (Leonard Harris), a homosexual pimp (a creepily hip performance by Harvey Keitel) and his 12-year old child prostitute Iris (the excellent Jodie Foster), whom Bickle takes on as a personal crusade as his state of mind becomes ever more intense and troubled. This provocative sub-plot hit a chord sufficiently for one young man, John Hinckley, to unsuccessfully assassinate President Ronald Reagan, out of his devotion to Jodie Foster in 1981.
Why Hinckley did this, or what motivates Bickle to want to kill his hero Charles Palantine never seems clear (there are also certain parallels with Bobby Kennedy's assassin); maybe it is just a general reflection of both men's frustrated desire to do something to change society.
Certainly Bickle's motives are more clearly felt when he unleashes his arsenal on the pimp's apartment where Iris is detained. Appropriately, it is Martin Scorsese himself who gives Travis the idea of using guns to solve his problems, in a scene-stealing cameo that's much more than just a Hitchcock-style director's appearance. That, and a later incident in a store where Travis just happens to be wandering in and shoots a burglar, and though he is shooed out of the shop before the police arrive, in his eyes the deed is a gesture of vigilante heroism to help clear up the streets.
The resulting bloodbath that comes at the film's climax, I remember well when I saw it in the autumn of 1989 at the sadly missed Ipswich Film Theatre; Scorsese had become a speciality there, ever since its gala opening with Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More in 1973. The film studies lecturer who introduced the film warned audiences how its violent conclusion might have a disturbing effect, and how it haunted me for some hours afterwards. Even by today's standards, when we are relatively attuned to violent images, this finale still packs a punch.
Bizarrely however, the story takes an unexpected turn when Bickle is cherished as a folk hero after his bloody rampage - with the unseen voice of Iris's father thanking Bickle for his actions. Continuity lets down the side a little here, as Bickle is seen back with the same long haircut he had from earlier in the film, and still doing his taxi round - almost as though nothing had happened. One of his passengers is Betsy, who has similarly warmed to him like the rest of the community, but Travis is wise to her aloofness now - or maybe just too far gone himself to engage in any normal relationship. The ending is unusually mellow for such a horrific climax preceding it, although it does offer a brief hint of the simmering violence underneath, as Travis adjusts his rear view mirror and a Walter Murch "backwards" sound effect conveys the state of the taxi driver's mind as he continues on his way.
A brilliant film, but one to be watched in the right frame of mind, for it preys upon loneliness and isolation and how they can bring one to the brink of despair, or in this case, violence.