Friday Night Seitz

Martin Scorsese's greatest movies

Slide show: "Raging Bull's" a contender, and "Taxi Driver." Which other films round out the iconic director's best?

  • 10.

    10. “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” (2005)

    Scorsese doing a documentary about the Rolling Stones (“Shine a Light”) or the Band (“The Last Waltz”) makes perfect sense, but Bob Dylan? Scorsese has rarely indicated any affinity for his music, especially not as a soundtrack contributor, and his temperament as a storyteller is much more hot-blooded than Dylan’s. But once you watch “No Direction Home,” it all clicks into place. This is a brilliant analysis of a great artist, made by an artist of comparable stature who works in a different medium.

    Here, as in most “American Masters” documentaries, the film is more interested in the work than in the life, and prefers to view the life through the work rather the other way around. More so than most music documentaries, “No Direction Home” is uncommonly fascinated by process — the process by which a no-name Minnesota teenager renamed himself and remade himself as a modern fusion of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, a socio-political and romantic balladeer, then stirred black gospel and blues influences into his music, then went electric, then Christian, all the while dealing with — and commenting on — immense changes in American life, and in his own life. “No Direction Home” is a very unglamorous portrait. It respects the roles that hard work, luck and instinct play in a significant and lasting career.

    And yet Scorsese respects the enigma of Dylan. He gets close to drawing some definitive conclusions about what he did and why, yet he always backs off at the last moment, perhaps after considering his own career and the morass of experiences and influences that must have informed it, and the discomfort he himself must feel whenever biographers or critics try to use his life to explain his work, as I myself am doing in here. As an imaginative portrait of Dylan’s shape-shifting journey through American history, I prefer “No Direction Home” to Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” because it seems to understand Dylan’s life and work more deeply, and connect to it more personally, and investigate it more plainly and incisively. Scorsese isn’t putting anybody on a pedestal or trying to knock them off. He’s just looking at a career and telling us what he sees.

  • 9.

    9. “The Age of Innocence” (1993)

    I’ve never understood why this film often gets grouped into the “lesser Scorsese” category. I think it’s one of his greatest works — close to perfect — and that it’s not only thematically consistent with his better-known, bloodier films, but offers additional insight into the personality who directed them. Freely adapting Edith Wharton’s novel while remaining true to its meticulous and genteel spirit, “The Age of Innocence” contains not one drop of spilled blood, yet it’s an intensely violent film. The violence is emotional, and it takes the form of suffocating customs and codes in 1880s New York society, which bind the main characters’ options as tightly as any corsets or waistcoats. The film’s opening credits sum up the film we’re about to see: gorgeous flowers blooming open, as suggestively sensual as Georgia O’Keeffe paintings but trapped behind scrims of lace.

    Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer, who’s engaged to marry May Welland (Winona Ryder) but falls for the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfieffer), and commences an intense, emotional affair with her. They think they’re being secretive and careful, but it turns out everyone knows exactly what’s going on, and it’s only a matter of time before the lovers are exposed, shamed and separated so that the status quo can perpetuate itself. It’s amusing to compare this film to Scorsese’s gangster triptych “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” all of which follow more or less the same narrative arc: troublemakers are allowed to act out by their society up to a certain point, and then the hammer falls. Joanne Woodward’s narration has a very warm tone, but its content is even colder than some of the narration in Scorsese’s gangster movies because it’s so detached in every way (including grammatically; it’s third-person omniscient, drawn from the book). Elmer Bernstein’s passionate score seems to express the spontaneous and messy inner lives that the characters can’t show or even speak of.

    As I wrote in a 1993 review of the film for the Dallas Observer, “In many ways, ‘The Age of Innocence’ feels like a rejoinder to Merchant-Ivory’s ‘A Room With a View,’ which urged its characters (and by extension its viewers) to throw caution to the winds and seize the day. Scorsese’s film is about the consequences of making such a choice. It’s painfully realistic in its recognition of what it takes to completely change the course of a person’s life.” We see the alternative in one of Scorsese’s most beautiful and chilling images, a wide shot of Newland going to work, just one more bowler-hatted man in a sea of them.

  • 8.

    8. “Casino” (1995)

    I said in my introduction that a lot of Scorsese’s post-1990s films tend to work very well for me in bits and pieces without quite hanging together as a whole. Sometimes the issue is miscasting, other times it’s a certain vagueness of intent: Why is he telling this particular story? What does he see in it, beyond its potential as a theoretical or stylistic exercise? For me, “Casino” is definitely that kind of film — a three-hour picture about Kansas City gangsters in 1970s Las Vegas that feels a bit overstuffed yet unfinished overall, includes a lot of awkwardly on-the-nose narration and music cues, and often feels like a pro forma reworking of motifs from his classic “Goodfellas,” but with the action moved a couple of rungs upward on the gangster universe’s food chain. The main characters in this one are the kinds of people that the main characters in “Goodfellas” had to answer to — the mob’s upper management. The documentary-styled details are fascinating but often feel too obviously expository for a Scorsese film, as if he and co-writer Nick Pileggi (who co-wrote the script for “Goodfellas”) were so determined to prove they did their homework that they stopped the show to read it to us. The casting of Joe Pesci as another pint-size hothead who doesn’t know his place feels like a tactical mistake; having seen him play a very similar role in another Scorsese gang picture blunts any potential for surprise.

    Why, then, is this film so incredibly addictive? Part of it is the jumbled, everywhere-at-once nature of the storytelling. It’s a selection of glittering stuff, a truckload of cinematic swag — and ironically that apparent failing is what makes “Casino” feel so different from other Scorsese gang pictures, and in some ways more challenging and vital. It might as well be three one-hour movies with the same characters, or three episodes of a limited-run TV series. The first hour is almost all scene-setting and throat-clearing; it almost feels like a self-contained docudrama (and a lot of it is in drawn from life). The second hour draws Sharon Stone’s grasping showgirl Ginger deep into the mix, and sorts De Niro’s coldly intellectual Ace Rothstein and Pesci’s volatile enforcer Nicky Santoro into opposing camps vying for control of Vegas; it seems more an anthropological study of 1970s Vegas gangland than the film’s other two movements, and considering how obsessed the entire film is with power and powerlessness, that’s saying a lot. The final hour of “Casino” plays like an expanded, much glitzier revamp of the “May 11, 1980″ sequence from “Goodfellas,” with the doomed relationship between Ace and Ginger becoming the catalyst for systemic chaos and failure. The kingdom that Ace has built just falls apart, and it’s ultimately his own damn fault. He’s not really undone by love — there’s little proof that the cold, smug bastard can love anyone but Ace — but by his own hubris. And Ginger is as bad as he is.

    In retrospect it’s the final third of “Casino” that landed it on this best-of list, over more structurally coherent, complete films such as “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “After Hours.” If you’re very lucky, you’ve never been in, or anywhere near, the sort of wildly dysfunctional marriage that Ace and Ginger slog through; if you are that unlucky, this part of the film might feel so much like a documentary that you’ll find it either revelatory or unwatchable. (For both Ace and Ginger, true love is synonymous with obedience, with doing whatever the other person asks without question or doubt. That’s not love, it’s slavery.) Even when the plots of Scorsese’s films seem disconnected from his own experience, Scorsese still makes personal, even autobiographical work that explores aspects of his own psychology and pathology; he’s the director as method actor, becoming the material. He’s been married five times and has spent most of his adult life surrounded by Ace Rothstein-levels of privilege. I would not be surprised to learn that he worked through aspects of his own married life (lives?) in the final section of “Casino,” which is anchored to the painful spectacle of two toxically selfish people sinking deeper into misery. (Note De Niro’s very Scorsesean cadences, body language and enormous glasses, which pretty much make the comparison official.) It’s “Scenes From a Marriage” with guns and coke and Stone’s ex-boyfriend and pimp (James Woods) lurking in the background, so reptilian that when he opens his mouth I half-expect him to reveal a forked tongue. Stone has never been rawer or more natural than she is in “Casino.” De Niro, Woods, Pesci and even wild-card actors such as Don Rickles and Alan King give performances that rank with their career best. And the movie is filled with dazzling and sometimes hilarious incidental touches, such as the X-ray images revealing how card sharps try to cheat the casino, and the way that Nicky’s voice-over narration gets cut off in mid-sentence with a metallic “Thwap!” and a pained yelp.

  • 7.

    7. “Italianamerican” (1974)

    If you’ve never seen this Scorsese documentary, do so immediately. It’s a perfect film, smart and loving and wise and expertly judged in every respect, like one of those champagne toasts at a party that becomes the final statement of the evening because everybody knows better than to try to follow it. It’s just a film about Scorsese and his parents, Charles and Catherine, and their relationship; it subtly and organically builds out from there, becoming a portrait of immigrants and assimilation, parents and children, and the anxiety of influence, but never ostentatiously so because Scorsese never forces anything. “They say as you get older, your love grows stronger,” Catherine says, after prodding her husband to move closer to her on their slipcovered couch. “So for some reason, it is getting a little stronger, you know, right, Daddy?” Charles does not respond. “He’s bashful,” she says. “Yeah,” says Scorsese from off-camera. “I know.”

    Along with the almost equally great “American Boy” — Scorsese’s portrait of his longtime friend Steven Prince, who played the gun dealer in “Taxi Driver” — this is probably Scorsese’s most stripped-down feature, nearly devoid of his usual flourishes. Although the film leans on archival images in some sections, for the most part it’s rooted in the traditions of mid-’60s American documentaries by such filmmakers as Albert and David Maysles (“Salesman”). Maybe 90 percent of this movie consists of images of people talking — about love, about the past, about their parents and their neighborhood and the proper way to cook red sauce — and that’s it. And because Charles and Catherine Scorsese are such indelibly recognizable types — a classic example of the warm, chatterbox wife and the cool, monosyllabic husband who’ve been married since Christ was in short pants — images of people talking is all Scorsese needs to make a classic. The film ends by reprinting Scorsese’s mom’s sauce recipe. Keep a notepad handy.

  • 6.

    6. “Raging Bull” (1980)

    The real-life inspiration for this film’s protagonist, middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, loved this film and was proud to have been associated with it; that tells me that he was either so impressed by its brutal honesty that he couldn’t argue with it, or else he was so utterly lacking in vanity or self-awareness that he couldn’t see how unsympathetically it portrayed him. This is easily one of the harshest filmic portraits of a famous person who wasn’t a dictator or a serial killer.

    As played by Robert De Niro, directed by Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, LaMotta is a painfully limited man who not only doesn’t change, but repeatedly fails to grasp basic truths about himself. He seems compelled to chase away and even destroy happiness and beauty. He cannot accept love of any kind, especially from his wife, Vicki (Cathy Moriarty), who should have been a civilizing influence. He is sexually insecure and hopelessly inarticulate. He can really only communicate with his fists, and that’s tragic, because it means he can’t express himself outside of a boxing ring. The film is also, as Roger Ebert wrote, “about a man’s inability to understand a woman except in terms of the only two roles he knows how to assign her: virgin or whore. There is no room inside the mind of the prizefighter in this movie for the notion that a woman might be a friend, a lover, or a partner. She is only, to begin with, an inaccessible sexual fantasy. And then, after he has possessed her, she becomes tarnished by sex.” The notorious scene in which a jailed middle-aged LaMotta bashes his head against a wall while howling like an animal represents the film in microcosm. LaMotta is trapped in his own painfully limited personality, a prisoner for life. He can’t even pretend to be somebody else, as evidenced by the mortifyingly sad image of him playing Marlon Brando playing Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront,” but sounding like nothing more than a fat old man reciting lines.

    And yet the movie is anything but ugly. Shooting in high-contrast black-and-white film, Scorsese and his regular ’70s and ’80s collaborator Michael Chapman create a thoroughly modern monochrome film, one that looks old but feels new, and that is inquisitive and appreciates beauty with a sophistication that eludes the film’s oblivious brute of a hero. The more times I see the film, the more I’m struck by the tragic distance between the rich and exciting existence that surrounds Jake LaMotta and his inability to see or feel any of it. This film might also represent the peak of Scorsese’s collaboration with regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker, with 1990′s “Goodfellas” being a very close second. The rhythmic precision of Schoonmaker’s cutting amplifies the director’s already compelling direction, with its mix of locked-down, animal-in-a-zoo conversation scenes and wild, spiraling, hyperkinetic boxing scenes, with the speed-shifts and shock cuts. The sound design is also astounding: Listen closely to the boxing scenes and you can hear all sorts of incongruous noises mixed into the punches, footwork and crowd sounds, including lions growling, chickens squawking and glass breaking.

  • 5.

    5. “Life Lessons” (1989); part of the anthology “New York Stories”

    I’ve often read that when TV started to take over short-film filmmaking in the late 1940s, and big screen one- and two-reelers went the way of the passenger pigeon, something fine and valuable was lost from cinema. Watching some of the better anthology films makes me think that these complaints are correct. Some stories make great 10- or 20- or even 40-minute films, but feel thin when stretched out to feature length.

    Scorsese’s “Life Lessons,” his contribution to the 1989 anthology “New York Stories,” is a beautiful example of this. There isn’t enough to the story of New York painter Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte, in one of his richest performances) and his obsession with a beautiful young assistant (Rosanna Arquette) to sustain a feature; but at roughly 45 minutes, it’s perfect — a tough but affectionate portrait of an aging virtuoso whose tireless energy and inventiveness aren’t enough to stave off his fear of inevitable irrelevance, aging and death. Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” serves as the mini-movie’s de facto theme song, playfully acknowledging Dobie’s cultural roots in the wild ’60s as well as the unbridgeable personal distance between that era and the late ’80s. The movie is very smart about relationships and how self-centeredness can cripple it. Dobie comes on as a true romantic, the kind of guy who’ll gush poetic declarations of love and kiss a woman’s foot while begging her to stay, but we’re always aware that what he really sees in his young lover is a reflection of his own lost youth.

    “Life Lessons” is also one of Scorsese’s most sheerly beautiful movies; long sections of it consist of nothing more than Dobie putting on music, filling up a canvas with Jackson Pollock-style paint spatters, then endlessly working and reworking it, hoping to make something meaningful and expressive emerge but ultimately coming up against the limits of his power. The close-ups of Dobie’s canvases are a nifty metaphor for Scorsese’s own directing style, which is the opposite of the classic Hollywood “invisible” approach. He wants us to see and admire the brushwork and revel in the color and texture of the paint. The final two minutes are laugh-out-loud perfect; they connect “Life Lessons” to so many other Scorsese films about limited men who think they’re making progress but are actually running in place.

  • 4.

    4. “A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies” (1995) and “My Voyage to Italy” (1999)

    It might seem odd that I’d put a couple of film history documentaries so high on this list; this is admittedly an instance of my own job description skewing the ranking in a way that might not make sense for most viewers. But these are great documentaries, and because they come from the same personal place and have the same concerns and a similar style, it seemed right to pair them and recommend them strongly. Scorsese is as much a film teacher and appreciator as he is a filmmaker, and the longer I write about popular culture, the more value this side of his career holds for me. I first started watching movies seriously as a high school student in the 1980s; between the straightforward homages to earlier movies built into Scorsese’s own features and the titles and directors that he pointedly named-dropped in interviews, I probably learned as much from him as I did from any college course or film history book.

    Scorsese’s fascination with movie history and preservation is showcased in the British Film Institute documentary “A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies” (1995), which he co-wrote and co-directed with Michael Henry Wilson, and “My Voyage to Italy” (1999), co-written with Italian screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, producer Raffaele Donato and American film critic Kent Jones. The simplicity and directness of both projects is breathtakingly right. We see Scorsese speak for a few minutes, then he gives us a scene, or a montage of scenes, with Scorsese speaking over the clips in voice-over, guiding our eyes and ears so that we grasp not just what particular movies make him think, but how they make him feel. The films are broken up into highly idiosyncratic chapters, and built around a very down-to-earth idea of the director as author, writing with pictures, sounds, music and performances as well as dialogue, balancing the intimate experience of particular characters against larger social and political forces that shape some of the best and most important films. The “American Movies” documentary, for instance, includes sections on “The Director as Smuggler” and “The Director as Iconoclast.” The Italian film documentary concentrates on particular directors who strongly informed Scorsese’s style — Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica in Part 1, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni in Part 2 — but roots everything in Scorsese’s own experience; there’s a lot of wonderful stuff about Scorsese’s childhood in Little Italy, as well as the experience of seeing these movies on a big screen among Italian immigrants and Italian-Americans, and the contradictory feelings the experience stirred in him and the lifelong curiosity it sparked.

    My own favorite film teacher once told me that the key to truly effective teaching is to speak plainly instead of lecturing, so that the listeners all feel as though the teacher is talking to them personally, as intimately as if they were sitting together in a coffee shop or bar. That’s how Scorsese approaches film history in this documentary. It’s as if we’re seeing the films that meant the most to him through his eyes. He is our projector.

  • 3.

    3. “Mean Streets” (1973)

    Almost 40 years on, Scorsese’s breakthrough feature has lost none of its punch, and it continues to influence so many films — not just Scorsese-wannabe gangster pictures, but coming-of-age films of every type. The core of so many of his films can be traced back to themes that he showcased in this one: the tension between spiritual anxiety and sensual pleasure; the attraction to, and repulsion by, thug behavior; the suffocating constraints placed on the individual by his upbringing, his neighborhood and his culture. The film’s two male leads are also iconically Scorsesean: Harvey Keitel’s Charlie is a mob insider who feels like an outsider, and who’s ultimately too intelligent, sensitive and reflective to rise within the mob, while his insufferable smart-ass cousin Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) is so much the insider that he takes his belonging for granted, and becomes — like so many Scorsese characters — a pest and a menace who ultimately has to be struck down so that the status quo can be preserved.

    But what’s really beautiful about “Mean Streets” is that none of this is foregrounded. It’s all lurking underneath the film’s voluptuous surface, a roiling mosaic of sexual longing, jocular banter, shocking and often absurd bursts of violence, fear of hellish punishment and, of course, rock ‘n’ roll. Scorsese is himself a lifelong insider-outsider, always telling stories about people who either wish to belong to clubs that would not have somebody like them as members, or people who have somehow gained access to those same clubs and are secretly terrified of being exposed as frauds and exiled or murdered. Beyond all of this, “Mean Streets” is a coded memoir, a more sophisticated, fictionalized version of a home movie — an intent that’s announced in the film’s delightful opening credits, scratchy snippets of 16mm footage scored to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Watch Federico Fellini’s 1953 classic “I Vitelloni” sometime; the tonal similarities are striking. Even though Scorsese’s early-’70s Little Italy seems dangerous and sleazy at times, the film’s point of view is ultimately warm, comfortable, knowing. No matter where it occurred, your youth is still your youth.

  • 2.

    2. “Goodfellas” (1990)

    Sometime in the mid-’80s — maybe around the time that Scorese’s gun-for-hire “The Hustler” sequel “The Color of Money” came out — the filmmaker’s detractors started to fixate on Scorsese’s hyperkinetic flamboyance, his tendency to want to have five or six thrilling things going on at the same time in almost every scene, often while pop music blared so loud that you could barely hear the dialogue. In such films, even the “quiet” scenes felt unrelentingly intense. “Goodfellas” isn’t quite the apex of this phase of Scorsese’s career — “Casino” (1995) probably takes the cake — but it’s close. And yet the combination of subject matter and choice of narrator makes the film’s style feel stunningly right. Mingling documentary affectation and expressionistic, at times wildly-over-the-top technique, the whole film is composed of virtuoso set pieces — everything from self-contained scenes (the Copacabana tracking shot, the murder of Billy Batts set to Donovan’s “Atlantis” and the subsequent, hilarious visit to Tommy’s mother’s house) to densely structured chapters (the climactic “Sunday, May 11, 1980″ section — aka the cocaine sequence — is practically a film in itself). Even the narration is surprising; when Lorraine Bracco’s Karen enters the picture, she takes the voice-over away from Liotta’s Henry.

    It’s not a deep or subtle movie — parts of it feel like “The Godfather” movies flattened out with a Looney Tunes mallet — but it’s not supposed to be. These are limited characters — profoundly amoral and selfish. They are loyal to nothing but their own appetites; they’re ruled by the code of the society-within-a-society that they’ve made a devil’s pact with, until they find it too constraining and begin freelancing without the boss’s approval. The protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is shown guzzling and snorting various intoxicants throughout the film’s running time, and the film reflects his physical state. It’s drunk on the cash, guns, power and access that the gangster life affords, and willfully oblivious to the bill that must come due. It’s no coincidence that so many of the film’s scenes are built around the preparation and consumption of obscene amounts of food. “Goodfellas” is fueled by bottomless hunger. It’s a movie with the munchies.

    Scorsese has said that he and his co-writer Nick Pileggi were influenced by Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s 1983 remake of “Scarface,” which juxtaposed gory violence and black humor in surprising, sometimes troubling ways. There is a moral point of view, though, and it can be found in the subtle (sometimes too subtle) contrast between Henry’s blasé voice-over accounts of brutality and his own often shocked or terrified on-screen reactions to it. It’s an attraction/repulsion film. “Goodfellas” admits Scorsese’s lifelong queasy fascination with these types of goons — he grew up a scrawny, asthmatic movie nerd in a neighborhood of gangsters and gangster-wannabes. But at the same time it shows his disgust with them, with the purely materialistic, non-inquisitive worldview that their animalistic behavior represents, and with the wider human failings reflected in their misdeeds. “Goodfellas” is as much a satire of Ronald Reagan-era, “He-who-dies-with-the-most-toys-wins” capitalism as it is a propulsive modern gangster picture. “We were treated like movie stars with muscle,” Henry tells us from the witness stand. “We had it all, just for the asking. Our wives, mothers, kids, everybody rode along. I had paper bags filled with jewelry stashed in the kitchen. I had a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed. Anything I wanted was a phone call away.” The closing music sums it all up: “My Way,” the punk version.

  • 1.

    1. Taxi Driver (1976)

    Scorsese is a perfectionist, but he isn’t a control freak; his movies breathe, their performances are often dependent on improvisation, and no matter how much planning went into a shot or sequence, there’s often an unpredictability and seeming randomness to the individual moments, a sense that the story could go anywhere and that the characters could do anything. That’s decidedly not the case with “Taxi Driver,” arguably the peak of Scorsese’s three-way collaboration with screenwriter Paul Schrader and star Robert DeNiro. From the first moment that you see cabbie Travis Bickle, you know he’s headed for a bad end and that — to borrow the title of a film made 31 years later by a major Scorsese obsessive — there will be blood. That sense of inevitability — tragic and horrific — gives “Taxi Driver” much of its power, and might account for the crystalline perfection of the storytelling. The movie knows where it’s going because there is no other possible outcome for Travis. The film is a slow Sunday drive into the maw of hell. This is probably the Scorsese film I’ve seen the most times — with “Goodfellas” slowly gaining on it, just because it’s so exciting and mordantly funny and addictive — but no matter how many times I revisit it, I keep noticing new things.

    Over time, what initially seemed a despairing arty-intellectual vigilante picture acquires tragic weight. Travis’ worldview is conveyed in adolescent neo-noir terms, with Bernard Herrmann’s score conveying the cornball Raymond Chandler aspects of Travis’ mentality as well as undercurrents of depression, insecurity and motiveless rage. The hero has cast himself the role of the Last Honest Man, an urban cowboy, an avenging angel who’s going to purify a fallen world; but Scorsese and Schrader undercut his banal pomposity with merciless images, such as the God’s-eye-view shot of Travis curled up in his bed in a fetal position, or the long sequence of him watching couples dancing on “American Bandstand,” blankly scrutinizing their casual intimacy while dry-firing a laughably giant handgun. Travis just isn’t wired right, and De Niro’s performance captures this in its repetitions, hesitations and faintly robotic tonal shifts. When he grins, the corners of his mouth seem to be drawn open by invisible wires. When he flirts with women, he’s unnervingly confident yet not all there; it’s as if he’s reenacting his favorite scenes from some nonexistent romantic comedy. There is nothing spontaneous or natural about this man. He’s deeply damaged, maybe by the war, maybe by his childhood; we don’t know exactly what his problem is, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. What matters is the evidence of what’s on-screen — the way he talks and behaves. His whole life he’s been passing for happy, confident, functional, normal.

    In a way, though, you could say that about all of the characters. The child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), the campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), Travis’ hilariously non-insightful “mentor” Wizard (Peter Boyle), even Sport the pimp (Harvey Keitel) all seem to be operating at some remove from the world, lost in their own interior spaces, seeing the world as they feel it and perhaps not as it actually is.