Home > Film, Politics, Reviews > Film Review: Taxi Driver & Joker

Film Review: Taxi Driver & Joker

Taxi Driver (1976; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Joker (2019; Directed by Todd Phillips)

The antihero is curious and fraught element of any narrative text that includes it. The antihero is not, properly speaking, the “hero” of his or her (but it’s mostly his, if we’re being honest) story, because the antihero’s moral arc bends too far from justice for any claim to the classic white-hat heroism that traditionally, virtuously opposed black-hat villainy. But they aren’t the villain either, as their protagonist status subjectively preconditions identification with and contextualized understanding of their choices and actions, the prerequisites to empathy and, it often follows, to symbolic heroism in the eyes of the audience. Indeed, the elements of an antihero character that sunder them from traditional heroic ideals are often constructed as being in some way necessary, as if they are compelled to bend moral codes and engage in questionable actions in order to best the real bad guys.

Even with antihero figures understood in context as purposeful critiques of (very predominantly masculine) tropes of heroism, we can find the “anti” prefix eroding away, sometimes gradually, sometimes almost instantaneously. “Antihero”, after all, contains the word “hero”, and the term itself makes it highly difficult to miss it, to emphasize the prefix as it should be. My younger self, marinating in the half-fetid juices of literary academia, might have inserted a dash or slash into the term, a hybrid literary theory invention like “anti/hero” intending to make the contradictions inherent in the trope clear and compelling, or, as is ever in vogue in lit theory, less clear and therefore more compelling.

The antihero cannot exist without social and political context, as Emily Todd VanDerWerff considered a year ago in her superb essay for Vox on the trope in television (where it was ascendant only a decade ago, and remains common today) in the age of #MeToo, with its promise of accountability and/or punishment for real-life male “antiheroes” whose immoral behaviour belies the abiding assumed rectitude of their positions of prominence. Context can place antiheroes in their appropriate compartment and thus preserve the intentions and thematic thrust of their creation, and it can free and engorge them as well, transforming them from textually-limited characters embodying certain themes, psychological implications, and political ideas into great and terrible symbols vibrating with larger import and dangerous meaning.

In the way that he somehow embodies both of these oft-contradicting conceptions, Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, the angry, awkward, vengefully violent loner protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, is surely one of the towering antihero figures in the Hollywood pantheon. The character and the film are impossible to separate from their historical and sociopolitical context: 1970s America, where accelerating social decay, energy crises, rising urban crime, post-Vietnam doubt in national greatness, and the rootless uncertainty of the economy, employment, and even interpersonal relations (across racial lines, of course, but also across gender lines, in the wake of second-wave feminism) leading to a profound sense of malaise that Jimmy Carter, elected President as a fresh, folksily frank outside voice in contrast to the post-Watergate den of festering corruption the same year Taxi Driver came out, dared to point out to his lasting detriment. Taxi Driver is the official movie of the mid-to-late-’70s crisis of confidence.

Travis Bickle feels a sort of formless dissatisfaction and inability to relate to the world he finds himself living in, or even to express it, as DeNiro demonstrates with eloquent non-eloquence when he struggles to explain to cabbie mentor Wizard (Peter Boyle) what exactly it is that is troubling him. Although he only briefly mentions having been a Marine in his first dialogue scene taking the taxi driver job, he is understood as a Vietnam veteran, and elements of the character’s appearance (the military-fatigue-style jacket he always wears, the mohawk hairdo he dons for the film’s climax) are derived from soldiers in that war. He never speaks of wartime trauma, but his disconnection can be read as a PTSD symptom. At the same time as he seems psychologically and emotionally caged, he moves freely through the dilapidated urban geography of New York and observes it with penetrating voyeuristic intensity, often from the driver’s seat of his taxi cab, a conveyence conferring both liberty and diminishing anonymity, a vehicle through which he seeks out social contact while also detaching himself from it to an extent.

Travis is not specifically political in his disenfranchisement, and his circling of presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), whose vague uplifting populism is redolent of politically non-specific neoliberal hopes from Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, does not reflect an ideological affinity (not that Palantine, not identified in partisan terms but surely a Democrat in the mode of fuzzily positive imagined politicians across decades of Hollywood product, has much of an ideology to speak of). His only firmly-held and expressed sociopolitical belief is an overwhelming, proto-fascist aversion to “scum”, criminal or immoral elements of New York City’s vast urban underworld that act as convenient targets for his confused, directionless resentment by virtue of their placement permanently beneath even him, an isolated white working man, in the hierarchy of social and economic value. When his resentments and isolation grow to a fever pitch, it’s hardly surprising that this “scum” is the target for his “righteous” outpouring of violence (Alan Moore drew from this element of Bickle for the truly psychopathic Rorschach in Watchmen, a work also highly influenced by the atmosphere of urban decay in the film).

Travis Bickle is a bundle of implications and resonant qualities, many of them personal and specific to the creative forces behind his genesis. Screenwriter Paul Schrader drew Bickle from Jean-Paul Sartre novels and John Ford’s The Searchers and the diaries of George Wallace’s putative assassin Arthur Bremer, but also liberally from his own experiences as a solitary, disconnected, underemployed insomniac in New York City who haunted porno theatres and became unhealthily obsessed with guns. Martin Scorsese, for his part, infused this character study with his observant perspective, his aesthetic fascination with the dark, macho realm of his proletarian corner of his home city but forever apart from it, the good, sickly boy who loved movies enough to choose them over the priesthood but drew deep inspiration from the earthy (and sometimes illegal) swirl of Italian-American life that he grew up observing.

The precipitous gun obsession that afflicted his main character and screenwriter also touched the director, if Hollywood urban legend is to be believed: facing pressure from the MPAA ratings board to re-edit Bickle’s climactic brothel massacre in order to avoid a X rating for his movie, Scorsese is reputed to have stayed up all night prior to the editing deadline brandishing a firearm, to shoot himself or the studio executive mandating the changes if things didn’t work out (it is not clear which, and probably was never going to be either). In comparison to Scorsese and Schrader, DeNiro’s immersion in Travis Bickle’s mindset was less psychologically scarring; production anecdotes emphasized the focused professionalism of his prep work, driving a NYC taxi around the city and studying the Midwest accents of American soldiers while filming a Bernardo Bertolucci film in Italy.

Travis Bickle’s general status as an awkward and peevish loner who wants what he cannot have and seeks to assert some measure of control over a world that ignores or rejects him is only sharpened to a fine and deadly point via the whetstone his fraught interactions with women. Bickle displays stalking behaviour with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a pretty Palantine campaign worker, watching her from his cab both before and after he insistently bullies her (and partly intrigues her with his sense of mystery) into a date. On this date, he clumsily buys her a Kris Kristofferson record that she already owns because she talked about it, then even more clumsily takes her out to a Swedish pornographic movie. Mortified, she walks out, ends the date, and rebuffs him later on a phone call that Scorsese’s subjective camera finds too painful to linger on, panning to an empty corridor instead. Bickle bursts into the Palantine campaign headquarters later, confronting her in anger and insulting her. He is, in a word, a creep, a personification of toxic masculinity.

In a turn that makes Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle a more fraught and problematic text in regards to these themes, this pattern is repeated in the movie’s final act when Travis comes across a pre-teen prostitute named Iris (a 12-year-old Jodie Foster, who starred in Disney’s Freaky Friday remake in the same year, which is quite the line on the old resume). Although there is no romantic or sexual angle to his interest (he in fact pays a fee to her handlers in order to speak with her, turning aside her insistence on providing her services to talk her out of continuing to whore herself out), their interactions follow the Betsy model: she turns aside his attempts to save her in a follow-up breakfast “date”, and he talks down her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) as a perceived male rival much as how he ran down Betsy’s fellow campaign worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Bickle’s response to Iris being unreceptive to his advances (protective and non-sexual though they are) runs towards a psychotic ultraviolent massacre this time around (ironically, Scorsese came to feel that the MPAA-mandated edits to the film’s colour grading made the shootout sequence more shocking).

Although Travis Bickle’s toxic behaviour in regards to women eventually turns to murder, to targetted extermination of some of the “scum” he complained about in his narrated journal entries and to Palantine, Taxi Driver controversially rewards him for his actions and considers worthy of admiration and praise in a denouement that concludes with even Betsy treating him civilly and even appreciatively during a cab ride. This 11th-hour rehabilitation of the violent loner antihero Bickle into a genuine hero (grateful letter from Iris’ parents and all) has to be considered problematic and even dangerous even without the intervention of history, which saw the Travis Bickle character in general and his actions towards Jodie Foster’s character in particular provide inspiration for the delusional fantasies that led to John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

With much of Bickle’s character originally drawn from the ravings of a would-be political assassin, this was a case of life imitating art imitating life. The pattern followed by men like Bremer and Bickle and Hinckley – two of them real, one of them more than real – would be followed by numerous future murderous examples of what Amy Nicholson, in a Rolling Stone interview with Schrader upon the release of his film First Reformed last year, refers to as “destructive young men” who “aren’t sure where to put their energies”. Martin Scorsese is not responsible for the choices and actions of destructive young men who saw in a cinematic moment like Travis Bickle’s firearm-toting “you talkin’ to me?” delusional role-playing not a warning about mental and social disequilibrium but instead an enticing power fantasy, but it’s hard to deny that Taxi Driver‘s legacy includes a roadmap to lasting infamy that represents an attractive alternative to heroism for too many troubled individuals.

Taxi Driver‘s fraught legacy brings us directly to Joker, a film that intends to revisit and recontextualize Scorsese’s ur-text of modern American dangerous loner cinema for a time whose seething resentments and socioeconomic inequality it understands as reflecting those of the 1970s. But Joker regurgitates more than recontextualizes Taxi Driver (as well as Scorsese’s 1983 dark satire The King of Comedy), intending to cast the DC Comics evil clown supervillain and nemesis of Batman as a Travis Bickle for our own troubled and superhero-obsessed times but instead recombining the ingredients of its influences and cultural contexts into an inedible stew.

Joker is the almost unremittingly sad and disturbing tale of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a skinny and socially-awkward clown-for-hire in a crumbling, tense Gotham City who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and struggles with poverty, isolation, dark thoughts, and an embarrassing psychosomatic nervous tic causing him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times (dissolving into pained laughter, he hands strangers a card explaining this condition). An aspiring stand-up comedian who doesn’t grasp what is actually funny (even his mother recognizes this), Arthur idolizes late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (DeNiro channeling Jay Leno), but loses his position with the clown agency after dropping a gun during a performance at a children’s hospital. Riding despondently home on the graffiti-plastered subway, Arthur gets a taste of his true, antisocial calling when he kills three arrogant Wall Street bros who mock him by singing “Send in the Clowns” (like, literally half of it) and beat him up, unintentionally becoming the avatar of a clown-masked popular uprising against the city’s rich, represented by plutocrat Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who publically derides the city’s poor and may or may not secretly be Arthur’s father.

As Jeet Heer pointed out regarding the film in one of his trademarked Twitter essay threads, Joker is variously Oedipally focused, yearning to pay tribute to father figures (Scorsese, DeNiro, Thomas Wayne, and, more subtextually, prior Joker actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) while also seeking to kill and replace them. Joker casts a period-unspecific (but most likely early 1980s) Gotham City as a mirror image of Taxi Driver‘s decrepit, bankruptcy-approaching New York. It casts Arthur Fleck as a more unstable Travis Bickle in clown paint, roleplaying scenarios with his gun in his apartment and following a female neighbour with whom he has a brief elevator interaction to her downtown job (and proceeding to imagine an entire subsequent relationship with her that, in a fairly predictable late-film twist, is revealed never to have happened). This woman, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), even repeats DeNiro-as-Bickle’s iconic finger-gun miming of a gunshot to the head to Arthur in reference to the crappiness of their apartment building.

But Joker is a bit like the many destructive young men who see their own frustrated struggles in those of movie loners like Travis Bickle but are not spurred on to productive self-reflection and improvement on the basis of those big-screen cautionary examples. Joker, which Scorsese was set to produce at one point before backing away from the project, pays relentless tribute to the formalist elements of his work (this may be why he backed away): Phoenix’s performance owes plenty to DeNiro and other actors of that generation, and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography injects lurid bursts of colour into the social realist drabness of Gotham’s urban environments as Michael Chapman’s camera lens did in Taxi Driver. There’s even a memorable shot of half-cleverness that Scorsese may have appreciated: a furious, darkened, just-fired Arthur repeatedly kicking a dumpster in a refuse-choked alley with a ferris wheel looming in the deep-focus background like a symbolic anticipation of his circus-derived awakening into trangressive mean-clown ultraviolence.

That Joker constructs Arthur’s final transformation into the comic-book supervillain as a glorified awakening, a subversive species of empowerment after a life of diminishment and disempowerment, is its most brazen and oddly its most boring misinterpretation of Taxi Driver. There was much chatter throughout the discourse in advance of Joker‘s release that it was likely to be irresponsible or even reactionary incel propaganda that would wind up getting people killed; after all, the last movie featuring the Joker was rumoured (inaccurately) to have sparked a mass shooting, and it was overall nuanced and ambiguous in its treatment of this agent of chaos, which did not prevent the character from becoming a symbol of alt-right defiance to whatever established order is imagined to be worth resisting (usually one involving people who aren’t conservative white males, but I digress). Joker isn’t anything like that, making Arthur both more precipitously violent than Travis Bickle and denying him anything like the redemptive conclusion of Taxi Driver (like Taxi Driver, however, Joker‘s final scene has been interpreted as leaving the door open to some if not all of the film’s events having been paranoid delusions existing entirely in the disturbed, unreliable protagonist’s head; like Taxi Driver, that is probably not the filmmakers’ intent, although it is more uncertain in Joker‘s case due to the film’s relative artistic clumsiness).

In advance of the release of Joker, director and co-writer Todd Phillips stated in one interview after another that due to the limiting sensitivities of easily-offended, politically-correct “woke culture”, he has found it impossible to continue making comedies like his big hits The Hangover movies without being “cancelled” (ie. criticized sometimes on the internet). Because of this, he has found it necessary to make a serious movie like Joker instead. Phillips’ contextualizing of Joker in this way has only lead to more progressive criticism of him and his movie in the cultural discourse (even from his own cast members, namely Marc Maron, who is in a single scene as Murray Franklin’s producer), even before people started to see the movie and discovered that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver place this complaint in the mouth of his lead character in the movie’s climactic thesis-statement speech during the scene of Arthur’s appearance in full Joker costume on Murray Franklin’s show after his atrocious open-mic stand-up set was shown on the program.

If this argument wasn’t bullshit enough entirely on its own, Joker itself renders it even more so. It’s entirely disingenuous for Phillips to claim that contemporary culture around comedy has forced him to make a serious movie instead, because Joker is not a serious movie (whatever the Venice International Film Festival may think). It’s not serious about the state of politics and society, it’s not serious about income inequality, it’s not serious about mental illness, it’s not serious about child abuse, it’s not serious about morality. It’s not serious about the titular focus of its character study, who, despite plenty of award-grasping Difficult and Serious Acting from its star Phoenix, it treats with clumsy, confusing, irresponsible inconsistency (Jenny Nicholson sharply breaks down why the film’s treatment of Arthur Fleck’s descent into the madness of Joker never makes internal sense in a recent vlog on the movie; she also points out superficial intertextual references to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, during a gala screening of which Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne in the film). It’s not even serious about the often very unserious comic-book superhero form/genre which it purportedly subverts and/or deconstructs.

As he slides into the Joker persona near the film’s end, Arthur Fleck says that while he once thought that his life was a tragedy, he has now realized it is a comedy (this line is visually anticipated in his first appearance in the film, painfully using his fingers to force his mouth into the respective rictus-mask frown and smile symbolizing theatrical drama and comedy). Todd Phillips ought to have heeded his own screenplay; his film is a comedy (though not a particularly funny one) that thinks itself a tragedy. Arthur Fleck is twice the antihero Travis Bickle was, but the movie focusing on him (indeed, told from his perspective, like Taxi Driver is told from Bickle’s) and intending to provide a compelling and even problematically empathetic portrait of his anguish and descent into violent madness is less than half the film Taxi Driver was, despite sharing so many (purposeful) similarities.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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