Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver

1976 Film by Martin Scorsese Starring Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, and Jodie Foster

 

A Vietnam war veteran, Travis Bickle is home and finds a job driving a taxi cab at night (because he can’t sleep anymore) in New York City. Travis spends the time he isn’t driving around the seediest boroughs of NYC by going to porno theaters and journaling his feelings about the filth he sees every day.

For a disillusioned young man back from fighting a war for a country who doesn’t give a shit about him, seeing nothing but poverty and human wreckage leaves him feeling agitated and disgusted. He finds escape in a beautiful and professional woman named Betsy who he sees working in a campaign office for a presidential candidate. Travis walks in and asks her out. But in an example of how out of touch and out of his league he is with Betsy, he takes her to a porno movie. She is angry and leaves him, refusing his calls and flowers.

His frustration and rage leaves him even more restless. When he finds the presidential candidate, Betsy works for in his cab, he strikes up a conversation. A flippant comment about cleaning up the streets leaves Travis thinking.

This is the beginning of the downward spiral into madness for Travis. Abandoned by his country (presumably), the girl who is too good for him, and having a front row seat to all the depravity of inner city New York, he begins working out, building contraptions for concealed weapons and then spending all his savings to purchase enough guns to supply a small country.

Watching Travis go through this, endears him to us. There is no question that he wants to be a good guy, he wants to clean up his city, he writes letters and sends Anniversary cards to his parents. His journal entries which we hear him read in voice-over tell the tale of a defeated man. A man who wants to improve the world but feels too small and impotent to do anything and so, in his failure comes to the realization that what cannot be improved must be destroyed. During this transformation, he uses his gun to kill a convenience store robber. Treated like a hero, the store owner tells him to go and the owner takes responsibility for the body’s disposal.

It’s hard not to root for the guy who, even in the process of his own destruction, befriends and attempts to save a very young (i.e. child) prostitute named Iris. He takes her to breakfast, he tries to get her out, leaves her all of his money so that she can go home although it’s clear to us as the observer and probably Travis as well that she will never leave (not without some major, life changing impetus).

Meanwhile, Travis, who has arrived at his own personal nadir, shaves his head into a mohawk and goes off to assassinate the presidential candidate. Why? Maybe because he wants Betsy to suffer or maybe he is disappointed in the lack of action from the candidate who spoke to Travis directly about cleaning up the streets of New York. Or maybe he’d just reached the limits of his own sanity.

I will avoid telling the end besides to say that even in his attempt to destroy himself, he fails.

This was my first ever viewing of Taxi Driver. For me, this was less of a pop-culture film and more an art film. Watching a man, who is lonely, lost, sleepless and likely suffering the effects of a war he never should have been in, slowly lose his mind, is gut-wrenching. A man who desperately reaches out for help, only to be told his feelings are normal (fellow cabbie Wizard) or that he is sick and perverted (Betsy) is a mirror of the anonymous violence he sees nightly. Violence that in the city goes unaided and unnoticed.

It’s hard to see Travis as the antagonist, or the psycho even though there is no mistaking his madness. He feels, he hurts, he cares about others. This may make him crazy but I don’t see him as a psychopath for those same reasons. We see him driven to this end as any other victim of chronic violence. His neurosis is a method of self-defense against a home that is no longer safe, no better than the place he just left. De Niro’s portrayal made this character who he was and I don’t think anyone else could have done it as well. Bottom line, this movie is a beautiful artistic vision of mental illness and should not be missed.

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6 thoughts on “Taxi Driver

  1. vanessaessler says:

    I think you’re absolutely right that it’s hard to see Travis as an actual psycho. In his own head, he is the protagonist of his story, trying to make the world a better place however he can. At several parts, I felt squeamishly sorry for him, like when he took Betsy to the porno. You can’t help but watch and think “No, no, no, she’s going to hate this! Don’t do it Travis!” but you also know he doesn’t realize that his actions aren’t normal. The way the film is presented in such a deep POV really creates sympathy for the character.

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  2. I had a hard time connecting with Travis, and I generally love character driven art films. Maybe I chose a night when I was too tired for the emotional baggage and just couldn’t get into it.
    I love your analysis of Travis, though. I agree that he probably does see himself as the hero on his own story, or at least he wants to be.

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  3. I like your analysis of Travis and his possible motivations behind his desire to kill the presidential candidate. He just seems so ordinary, despite the things he may have seen in the war. Perhaps the need for recognition from the people he meets is what he is seeking from his country. If I’m being honest, like Kristin, I watched it while pretty exhausted, and must have dozed off because I completely missed his first killing. Will have to rewatch!

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  4. Travis is the everyman that has just had too much. Yeah, he’s awkward and out of touch, but his moral compass is pointed at a solid “North.” Possibly too solid, as he sees himself as a lone soldier against the evil filth of the city. I didn’t find the movie overly exciting, but I love the Travis Bickle character.

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  5. Joe-la, your post really made me more sympathetic for Travis than I had felt while actually watching the movie. After he took Betsy to the movie, I was pretty much ready to stop rooting for him. I mean, he may have insomnia but I couldn’t see how he could be that out of touch to think that taking a woman he’s interested in to that kind of movie would be a good idea. But after reading your take on it, I can see your point on how he is such a sympathetic character. At times you find yourself rooting for him in spite of yourself, and I can’t really say the same for too many of the other psychopaths.

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  6. Joe-La, I loved that you loved this movie. Your analysis, as always, is penetrating and comprehensive. I think you may have hit on the reason why Travis initially wanted to kill the presidential candidate — disappointment. And while ordinary people might be used to feeling disappointed in their leaders, Travis was unwilling to be ordinary, which is why I liked him, too.

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