Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese
Retro Review by Zach Dennis
What does it mean to be truly lonely and what does it do to us?
This is the central question of director Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in which he places us into the world of Travis Bickle (played by Robert DeNiro), who explores the eccentricities of New York City in the 1970s by the streetlights. Travis is a cab driver by night — soaking in the scum and debauchery that he feels is overcoming this once great city.
Or at least that’s what he tells a presidential candidate who enters his taxi.
At the heart of Taxi Driver is this concept of true loneliness and what becomes of us when it festers into something too much to bear. In the case of Travis, he is trying to channel it into something larger than himself. On a date with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), she mentions to him that he reminds her of a Kris Kristofferson song — “He’s a prophet. He’s a pusher. Partly truth, partly fiction. He’s a walking contradiction.”
In most of Travis’ social interactions, he struggles to connect with the other person due to a basic lack of understanding of how simple conversational paths go. In one scene, while trying to reach out to fellow cab driver Wizard (Peter Boyle) and attempt to explain these feelings he is reckoning with, there is a clear struggle happening within Travis. Played perfectly by DeNiro, there is something simmering under the surface that Wizard isn’t able to interpret — Travis wants to make an impact on the world, but can’t decipher whether it is good or bad. This internal ideological clash continues as he teeters between opening fire on a political candidate or breaking a young girl out of the world of prostitution.
While watching Taxi Driver for the second time, a lot of its main character seemed to mimic a few of the faces linked to the mass shootings plaguing America in recent years. People like Dylann Roof or George Zimmerman could be interchanged with Travis Bickle due to their quest to rid the world of the scum and debauchery they’re witnessing in front of them. Travis is so blinded by his own ideological interpretations of the world that he lacks the basic understanding to see how others are functioning within its current parameters — which in his eyes are flawed and need to be disbanded.
In this lens, Travis is seemingly a predator within the scope of the more sociopolitical context. After he is rejected by Betsy, he says that she is “just like the others.” Travis doesn’t necessarily see himself as someone wiser than everyone else, but does view himself as a person who can see through the filth of reality. As he drives quietly through the New York City night, Scorsese films the sequences with a mystical hazy quality with the people’s bodies and lights blending together as if you are squinting to see what is happening. Travis remarks at how people are living their lives in such excess and filth, and how this is causing the city to crumble.
You can tell that Travis does grasp the notion that he may not be able to vocalize his displeasures as well as others can. When the candidate, Palantine, enters the cab and asks Travis what one thing he would want to see changed, you see the cabbie struggle to articulate these ideas that have raced through his brain and been vocalized to the audience through narration so far.
It isn’t that shocking that the idea of doing something greater than himself in the eyes of Travis would be to off a presidential candidate. He doesn’t seem interested in winning the favor of Betsy or even proving a point — it seems to become more and more clear that he is wanting to send a message with the exact wording coming after the gunshot is fired. As his moment approaches, he chokes and is forced to rush from the scene.
Still looking to channel his frustration into something, he latches onto a young prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), who he remembers from a very brief run-in earlier in the film. She is under the “protection” of Sport (Harvey Keitel), who is as loose with his language and memory as he is with his commitment to Iris. While Travis could tell that Iris wanted to get away from this life when she entered his cab early on, that mood has seemed to changed as he sits in her room while she tries to “make it” with him.
Now, she doesn’t seem to be rushing into his arms looking for security and safety — she is more comfortable with her situation — something he is unable to see.
An example that struck me as something similar (but in different context) was the character of Hank (played by Paul Dano) in Swiss Army Man, which opened earlier this year. In that movie, Hank is unable to function within society and instead, chooses to die rather than go on not finding the love of a woman, the comfort of a friend, or the admiration of his family. As the movie progresses, and Hank is introduced to his “friend” Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), it becomes more clear that Hank is a Travis Bickle-type character — but without the radical ideas inside his head.
He is reminiscent of Travis in the sense that he doesn’t truly relate to the rest of the world and their rejection fuels his flawed reality. He shows Manny a perfect world, but this is one concocted in his head rather than anything steeped in truth. When he appears in the lawn of his “girlfriend,” Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), at the end of the movie, it is soon revealed that Hank’s fantasies of them being together were just that — fantasies — and the two never shared an actual moment together.
Taxi Driver is complicated because it asks you to reckon with the complexities and radicalism of Travis Bickle even though you know he is going about this the wrong way. As he bids ado to Betsy in the closing sequence, we are given a sense that he has come to some sort of closure with his radical ideals and is not fetishizing his brief encounter with the woman as much as he was before.
Now whether or not that sequence is true, or if Travis died in a pool of blood after the shootout at the brothel, is another essay — but it does allow this man, who has been struggling to make peace with his mind, to finally do that in the only manner he knows how — a flawed one.
The trick of Taxi Driver is not in the lengths Travis goes to break from his loneliness, but how it is able to visualize something so absolutely foreign to so many people — the sick mental state.