SHOWDOWN: TAXI DRIVER vs. LEPRECHAUN
SHOWDOWN is about looking at two films under the month’s theme – one generally recognized as a great film and one which has been overwhelmingly panned – and finding the good and the bad in each, if there is any. – Nathan Zanon
THE TOP LINE
Taxi Driver is the story of Travis Bickle, a troubled Vietnam vet who takes a job driving a New York City taxicab. Unable to form meaningful connections with people and frustrated by what he describes as the city’s “filth” (crime, drugs, and prostitution), he eventually takes matters into his own hands in a violent way.
Leprechaun is the story of a diminutive, magical creature who gets very upset at humans who steal his gold. When a crew of feisty youngsters happens upon his valuable stash, he takes matters into his own hands in a violent way.
Both of these films feature a sore loser who lashes out when they lose control of the things in their environments. But the two stories differ in an important way: in Taxi Driver, Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) journey represents the primary story arc of the film. In Leprechaun, the main characters are the group of humans doing battle with the obnoxious little fella. The Leprechaun (Warwick Davis) is the antagonist. We watch Bickle slip into a terrifying level of disconnectedness, ready to shoot a major political figure before finally achieving some sort of tentative redemption by instead killing a pimp (Harvey Keitel) and rescuing a teenage prostitute (Jodi Foster), giving his troubled soul a moment of peace. The Leprechaun doesn’t really do anything redeeming; he just acts like an asshole in order to keep Tory (Jennifer Aniston in her first film role) and her friends on their toes until they can take him out and give themselves some peace. The story arcs are primarily action-based: beating the Leprechaun is the only obstacle they need to overcome, with the slight exception of Ozzie (Mark Holton), a sort of man-child who seeks to prove himself useful by doing something “smart.”
Bickle is a complex, layered character whose psychological turmoil constantly bubbles below the surface. He describes his day-to-day activities in a journal, often remarking on his disgust of the people he encounters. Until one day when he spots the beautiful Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), a veritable angel among the rest of the scum. He tracks her down in her office—the New York campaign headquarters for a Presidential candidate—and asks her out. Intrigued but wary, she joins him for coffee; things go south quickly on the second date when he brings her to a porno and she makes a hasty retreat. Bickle genuinely seems to not understand why that gesture would put her off. After this, his continued impotence for repairing the problems on the streets and his increasing desire to lash out put him on a path to the bloody climax. In the end, his actions are hailed as heroic, but having watched his dark trajectory, we come away with a much different view of him, wondering how long until he turns violent again.
The Leprechaun repeatedly states his motivation as wanting to retain control of his gold (although for what purpose is anyone’s guess) but his actual motivation appears to be a more sadistic desire to fuck with people. Although he constantly makes demands for “me gold,” he often seems less intent on actually obtaining it than he does finding unusual ways to torture the people who he happens across. Indeed, after having already retrieved one gold coin from a local shop owner, the Leprechaun pointlessly murders him with a pogo stick (yes, that happens). Spoiled city girl Tory, her dad, and her newfound friends—the handsome handyman Nathan (Ken Olandt), a kid named Alex (Robert Gorman), and Ozzie—are basically accidental victims: they didn’t take the gold in the first place. The Leprechaun messes with them immediately after he is released from the box in the basement where he has been trapped for a decade; Alex and Ozzie find the gold later, but it’s clear the Leprechaun actually has no idea where it is. He’s just a jerk. When Tory learns where Alex and Ozzie stashed it, she tries to return the gold back and resolve the matter peacefully (surprise: it doesn’t work). The last piece is in Ozzie’s stomach, because he accidentally swallowed it, and despite having 99/100 of his pieces, the Leprechaun must get his final gold coin—his greed then proves to be his downfall, as the crew figures out a way to kill him (until Part 2) with the help of a 4-leaf clover.
The Leprechaun’s role is little more than a function of a standard, B-movie style horror film arc, so his failure to evolve as a character isn’t exactly surprising. But that’s not to say it isn’t possible: the best horror films of this style (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien) inject some depth into their antagonist. The Leprechaun is so without depth that although he has magic powers and he for some strange reason is compelled to clean people’s shoes (apparently because he’s a cobbler?), these potentially intriguing elements are given no further context or rules for the audience to understand, leaving us wondering, “why didn’t he use his magic powers there?” and “why exactly is he cleaning their shoes?” His single-minded obsession with the gold makes him unrelatable, not scary. His only scary features are his general creepy mannerisms and ugly prosthetic makeup.
Bickle, on the other hand, has much more going on. He’s more than just his disgust for the crime of New York; his need to control goes deeper than his desire for Betsy. Just back from the war, we immediately know he has a heavy backstory. When asked about his driving record by the taxi company, he says that’s it’s “clean…like my conscience.” It’s a bit of a joke, an early reference to the fact that he has seen and been through a lot. Later, when he starts buying guns and plotting to kill the candidate, it IS scary precisely because his background, his instability and his obsessiveness have been built up over the course of the film. You know he’s capable of killing, you know he feels righteous, and on a certain level you understand him.
Ultimately, Taxi Driver succeeds because the sore loser is more than just that. The film addresses social and political issues through the lens of the main character, and it challenges us throughout. It was timely in the 1970s and many of the themes remain relevant 40 years later as further wars mean even more soldiers are returning to civilian life with PTSD and other psychological turmoil.
Both Foster and De Niro were nominated for Academy Awards for their roles; De Niro’s is particularly well deserved, as it’s his exceptional performance that makes the film work. He brings his character to life, somehow balancing him between creepy and strangely innocent. The film is also scary and disturbing, while Leprechaun, whose purpose is to be at least a little bit scary, is not at all. That film’s sore loser is one-dimensional and silly. The movie has little of interest to say, and despite spawning a series of increasingly ridiculous sequels as well as giving Jennifer Aniston some early career exposure, it’s pretty much completely forgettable.
The critics were right. Taxi Driver is great, and Leprechaun is not. However, Leprechaun is the better party movie: pair it with some other bad horror films and watch it to laugh, and you’ve got a hit. Taxi Driver will just make people feel sad inside.