The world was a surprisingly different place in 1976. The places, names and events that occurred in that time are now what schoolchildren are taught as history, even when the repercussions are felt to this very day. What was a shocking film of madness and vigilanteism in the wake of war is now quite mild. We’re used to seeing killers on the rampage, why “We Need to talk about Kevin” was released only two years ago. We’ve even had an art house take on the madman-with-a-gun genre in the form of Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant”. Needless to say, De Niro’s gunman seems sweet, courteous and justified in comparison.
What does, however, remain shocking in this film is Jodie Foster. Regularly stealing the scene from the seasoned DeNiro at age 12 her screen presence is as magnetic and envy-inducing as her character is unnerving and disturbing. Interestingly she seems to appear almost exclusively in white clothing, cruelly mirroring the “pure” and “sophisticated” Cybil Shephard character. Similarly the day and night in New York are equal forces mirroring and twisting one another. The pure woman of the day is in fact a part of the corrupt government system which endorsed the Vietnam war. The prostitute of the night is just a naïve child lost in the city. Neither side is good or bad, the vivacity and variety of human nature is contained in the night, the joys of society and democracy in the day. Yet both coexist with the corporate drone mentality of the day and the unrelenting human scum of the night. Neither side can lay claim to right or wrong. DeNiro’s character is right when he insists that something must be done about this city. Fifty years after the tainted hedonism shown by Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby New York has descended into an awful state of duplicity which seems both inevitably and irreversible.
The real question raised here is where does the Vietnam Vet belong in this melee? Is he a hero among the daytime folk or a murderer among the nighttime creatures? DeNiro’s performance is consistently on the nose, even if rendered somewhat surreal by years of parody and homage. His portrayal fluctuates between the two extremes of his surroundings with ease, leaving the audience to constantly second-guess where this damaged time bomb will go next. This impression is helped by the cinematography which captures the grimy night of New York City in a very similar way to Refn’s “Drive” for modern L.A.. The street signs light up our anti-hero as he stalks the night simultaneously rising above the scum and becoming an organic part of it, never quite becoming part of any of it.