21 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 13, Taxi Driver by Paul Shrader

 “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time.  True force.  All the King’s men can not put it back together again.” 

Travis Bickle gets a job driving a taxi during the graveyard shift. His mental and social isolation is near total, despite living in New York City. He fixates on a beautiful campaign worker, blows it, then decides to assassinate a presidential candidate. Along the way, he meets Iris, a 14-year-old runaway and her pimp, Sport. He tries to help her out, and she turns him down. When he tries to assassinate the candidate, the Secret Service spots him before he carry out his plan. Travis then turns back to Iris and in a blood-soaked rescue she didn't ask for, he blows away her pimp, her gatekeeper and a mafia guy. In a brief epilogue, we find out that he's become a hero to the media, and to Iris' parents.

In reading the script, we spend a lot of time in Travis' head. It uses voice over extremely powerfully, and that reinforces our placement into his world. The diary entries clue us in to his desperation, but it's never on the nose. Beyond that, each detail is so carefully chosen that as the script unfolds, we inhabit Travis' point of view more and more. We're confronted with filth, porn, the kinds of guys who want to put guns up their cheating woman's pussy and blow her away, with junkies and the nighttime/nightmare world of the city.  It stinks of a sexuality that's curdled and twisted. It aches with loneliness, connections missed or muffed or never made. And underneath it all, the buzz and snap of violence, random or rationalized. I arrived at the point that as a reader (and a viewer), that the massacre at the end feels right, although it's completely deranged.

And you know what else? NO BACK STORY. Not a second of some lame-ass exposition filling us in on Travis' troubled youth. The script drops hints along the way, and we see him sending a card to his parents, a scene that speaks for so much more than its surface content. Btu I hate the way movies seem compelled to give you details about this character or that. Here, we get: a Viet flag. An army jacket. His familiarity with firearms. His statement that he was honorably discharged. Each of these could be true, but we know Travis likes to build myths around himself. So each could be just a prop. I think it's likely that Travis is a genuine vet, because that speaks to the more abstract theme of American Violence -- which is so skilfully subsumed by the insanity of Travis and our tendency to identify with him that the standard liberal message is blotted out.

I noticed, again, the warping power of an actor's charisma. Travis is much less sympathetic on the page. Even though de Niro did nothing to compromise the mess of the man, his warped sexuality or the psychotic violence under the surface, de Niro's still absolutely magnetic. You can see why it all poisoned John B. Hinckley (although,as Ed Dorn said, "What's so crazy about wanting to fuck Jody Foster and kill Ronald Reagan?").

(Post script: I didn't know, until reading the script that the most famous line, "You talkin' to me" was improvised on set by de Niro.)

What a mad, bad, balls out epic script this is.

Too cool not to include: De Niro prepped for the role by driving a taxi; this is hack's license

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