This was a double feature at the New Beverly, two films written by Paul Schrader. Taxi Driver is one of my all-time favorite films. Rolling Thunder, which I had never seen before, feels less developed thematically in its attitude towards violence and guys going crazy, but that might also be the result of rewrites by one Heywood Gould. It's also one of Quentin Tarantino's favorites and curiously not available on DVD.
Like the more well-known Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder is the story of a damaged Vietnam veteran who returns to this country and winds up lashing out in an orgy of destruction. The main difference in the movies is in the nature of their protagonists and the missions they put themselves on - justified revenge in the case of one movie, lunatic self-aggrandizement in the case of the other.
Major Charlie Rane (William Devane) is a former POW returning home to San Antonio after seven years of torture and deprivation in North Vietnam. Even though there are rallies in his honor, it's clear from his reserve that he's just going through the motions for the sake of politeness; the ceremonies marking his return are less for Rane's benefit than they are to ease the consciences of the people who stayed at home, to heal the wounds of Vietnam. But for Rane, the trauma of the war is only compounded by his family - his son doesn't remember him and his wife is in love with a local deputy, Cliff. Cliff tries to reach out to Charlie in an uncomfortable scene where he offers him a glass of whiskey - Charlie accepts it and toasts, but unobtrusively sets it down without drinking it and goes back to his can of beer. The dialogue that follows, as Cliff tells Charlie, "I don't want to think about what you went through" sums things up nicely - everyone in Charlie's life has gone on with their lives, and they'd prefer for Charlie to do the same with a minimum of fuss. This isn't their fault, as nobody really has any idea what it was like for Charlie in captivity - but nobody's too eager to figure out what's ticking behind that 200-yard stare, either.
What has been a tense domestic drama up to this point shifts gears at the half hour mark when a gang of thugs breaks into Charlie's house looking for a box of silver dollars given him as a homecoming gift. Reverting to POW mode, Charlie stubbornly refuses to capitulate to the thugs - his meaningless stubbornness (and by extension, the persistence of America's involvement in the war in general) are nicely summed up by a piece of dialogue from the bad guy played by James Best: "He's one macho motherfucker!" (I might be misquoting but that's the gist.) Things escalate until Charlie's wife and son are murdered and Charlie's in the hospital with a hook where his right hand used to be (note: the sound design in the hand-maiming sequence could have used some more imagination).
The rest of the movie has Charlie methodically tracking down the gang, dragging along a cocktail waitress who's developed a crush on him. She tries to reach out to him, to start a new life, but Charlie's mind is made up. For him, vengeance is practically something for him to jump at, a return to a way of life that he's more equipped for now than mere domesticity. There are strong links to Bob Clark's Deathdream (1974), which takes a more metaphorical route, turning its young veteran into a literal undead zombie creature who needs fresh blood in order to stay alive - Deathdream literalizes what Rolling Thunder only alludes to in dialogue and performance, that the war has turned Charlie into the walking dead, living only to kill, if he can get the chance.
Rolling Thunder ends with Charlie meeting up with a POW buddy (played by a young Tommy Lee Jones) and the two gearing up in their military uniforms for One Last Mission, killing bad guys in a Mexican whorehouse. As exciting as this is, it's also pretty simplistic. What makes Taxi Driver a superior work of art (among other things) is that the orgy of violence at its climax is a scene of horror, of mental illness brought to its inevitable conclusion. The excitement of the violence is coupled with revulsion of its ugliness and Travis Bickle's patheticness; in Rolling Thunder, it's just a kick-ass action sequence, with no thought given for the repercussions. By rolling credits on William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones exiting the whorehouse triumphantly, the movie performs an act of denial (not wanting to think about what their lives might be from this point on) similar to Cliff preferring to not have to think about what Charlie Rane had to endure after he got shot down. Oh well.
As for Taxi Driver, every time I watch this movie it dazzles me. My favorite sequences are the scenes of Travis Bickle talking to himself in his tiny apartment, pushing his television over with one foot until it reaches the tipping point and smashes on the floor, and the mental devastation that follows - how is he going to distract himself from those voices in his head now?
Watching it this time, I was more aware of the subplot involving Travis's racism - the fearsome black faces he stares at and the black kid holding up a grocery store that he murders. It's a pretty big event that the movie seems to forget about five minutes after it's happened, moving forward to different plot areas. It strikes me as something of a miscalculation to bring in something so heavy and then abandon it as a thread for the rest of the movie, and it seems to be Jonathan Rosenbaum's primary reason for labelling the movie 'racist', which I can't really agree with. Travis is racist, yes, but the movie doesn't endorse his racism, which is clearly borne of ignorance and fear. Such are the critical buttons which Rosenbaum allows to be so easily pressed. Also, this movie wins an award from me for being one of the filthiest movies ever made - usually Hollywood movies look clean because they're filmed on constructed sets; or if shot on location, in places that have been cleaned and dressed up by set decoraters. The cheap rooms and streets in this movie - especially the hotel site for the final bloodbath - look like they haven't seen a mop in decades.
I kind of wish Schrader had pulled the same trick in Rolling Thunder that he had in Taxi Driver; Travis, fixated on Cybill Shepherd's Betsy, intends to kill her idol, a vacuous Presidential candidate. Foiled and chased away by the Secret Service, Travis immediately transfers his energies to an easier, lesser target, Harvey Keitel's pimp character. I'm imagining a version of Rolling Thunder where Charlie Rane tracks down a bunch of low-lifes to a Mexican whorehouse and kills them, but not the actual murderers he's looking for - those could be tracked down by his less-bloodthirsty, less-damaged rival Cliff. Something to think about.