Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s 1976 masterpiece is like a narcotic: the immediate effect lasts for a little under two hours, but it lingers in the bloodstream and you’re left thinking about it for an indeterminable stretch of time afterwards. Insomnia, loneliness, and vengeful insanity are captured so painfully realistically that the viewer wishes to look away, wishes to wrench themselves away from the pitiful life of Travis Bickle, but finds it impossible to do so. Yet upon reflection, having been submerged into the misty streets of New York City, having witnessed violence, prostitution and a tragedy occurring at the hands of our torturous protagonist – we are left asking, what is Taxi Driver?
The majority of the film’s mystery comes from the content not included; the words not said. Our view of the city is warped, because Taxi Driver is a deeply personal film, it is one with a lens focused on the soul of Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the lonely insomniac, Travis Bickle. This is not a film about New York, it is a film about Travis Bickle’s perception of New York. We see the lonely streets and the dimmed lights, we witness the camera panning through empty corridors, and we are only introduced to other characters through their interaction with Travis. Even the weather is chosen to specifically reflect Travis’ feelings towards the life he leads – someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. Taxi Driver is a microscopic observation, a window into the life of just another lonely soul.
Who is Travis Bickle? The way that the plot – like the mist rising from the city streets – wraps its way around him, conceals sections, barring the audience from full knowledge. We know him as an ex-US marine, an insomniac, a taxi driver. We know he watches pornographic films during the daytime, and that he goes to Wizard (Peter Boyle) for advice. Travis alters during the course of Taxi Driver; his subdued, relentless dissatisfaction becomes active rather than passive, and everything – including his unfortunate attempt at romancing Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) is a catalyst for revenge. After a twelve year old prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) finds her way into his cab, a dollar bill given to quieten him about the incident by Iris’ pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), haunts Travis.
As an audience, we realise a little late that the plot has changed course. Travis purchases some guns and tapes them to his legs and arms. This follows on from a rejection he received from Betsy; a campaigner for Charles Palentine, after being successful in taking her for coffee – I had black coffee and a slice of apple pie with a side of melted cheese. It was a good choice. Betsy had a coffee and a fruit salad. She could’ve had anything she wanted – Travis then took her to see an adult movie, and she walked out during the film, visibly horrified. After she has rejected him, the camera pans down an empty hallway, and Martin Scorsese is known to have said that this was the most important shot in the film. When questioned, the director revealed that it was designed to show that we, as the voyeurs, can’t bear to watch Travis feel the pain of being rejected. This is in contrast to the well-utilised “bullet shots” that show the later violence in excruciating slow motion.
What we are essentially watching, although most do not realise it at the time, is a preparation for assassination. Travis goes through various muscle training exercises; he practises pointing the gun and pulling it out from underneath his sleeve. He even watches television with the gun aimed at the screen. He does this silently, and nobody outside his isolated existence is even aware of his plans. When Charles Palentine, the man who is a Presidential Candidate, and whom Betsy spends her working hours supporting, hails Travis’ cab, Travis sees through everything Charles presents himself as to the public. This film is as ardently political as it is biographical; there is an undercurrent of change bubbling beneath the city surface – and it dawns upon the viewer that Travis intends to kill Palentine. Why? It is never explained. Taxi Driver has more to say through unexplored content than what actually plays out on the screen. Was it because he knew that this man, this unknown man, held more of Betsy’s affection than Travis ever would? Or was it because he saw what needed to change, and believed that this man wouldn’t resolve anything?
Killers are often dehumanised in films. They are dismissed as motiveless; teetering on the edge of insanity. Travis, throughout the entirety of Taxi Driver, is so unequivocally human that we almost struggle to understand the concept that he is intending to shoot someone, that in a later scene, he will be a murderer. It is his traits and his demeanour that cause him to be perceived as such; he is an insomniac, he was in Vietnam, he eats apple pie and writes Anniversary cards to his parents – one day, there will be a knock on your door, and it’s gonna be me. One shot shows Travis sitting watching television, with the gun pointed at the screen as usual, with Jackson Browne’s Late For The Sky playing in the background – the anthem of loneliness, the album that represented the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Awake again, I can’t pretend, Jackson sings, whilst Travis points his gun at a couple dancing on the television, and I know I’m alone, and close to the end, of this feeling I’ve known. Wordlessly, Martin Scorsese conveys the loneliness of Travis Bickle, and for the first time, he appears to be pathetic. For the first time, he seems genuinely breakable.
Travis has, for the film’s duration, become obsessed with the thieves, crooks, pimps and prostitutes that frequent his late night taxi journeys. It is Iris that grabs his attention most fiercely, as reflected when he later finds the crumpled dollar bill given to him by Harvey Keitel. He visits the brothel, paying for time to be with Iris, to try and convince her to stop the prostitution. To his surprise, she rebuffs him and doesn’t wish to be rescued. Well, Iris, I look at it this way – Travis tells her. A lot of girls come into my cab, some of them very beautiful. And I figure all day long men have been after them: trying to touch them, talk to them, ask them out. And they hate it. So I figure the best I can do for them is not to bother them at all. So I don’t say a thing. I pretend I’m not even there. I figure they’ll understand that and appreciate me for it. Iris tells him that she understands the options given to her in life, and her work as a prostitute. Her calm acceptance is not enough for Travis. Why is it that he wants to rescue Iris? Why is he so invested in something that is none of his business? Perhaps it is because, as an ex Marine, Travis knows what it’s like to be scarred by a youthful pastime. Or perhaps it is more to do with the film’s underlying theme of change, and Travis’ overwhelming desire for it.
Taxi Driver follows Travis Bickle through his starting appearance, sunglasses and slicked back hair, and finally, a mohawk. Caught before he can assassinate Charles Palentine by heavy security, Travis escapes to the brothel. There, the film reaches its peak. This is the event that, however unknowingly, Travis’ life has been leading up to. This is what has taken an unmentioned amount of planning. Travis first shoots Sport in the stomach. The camera moves painfully slowly, using the aforementioned bullet shots to allow the viewer to see the violence clearly. From the floor, the dying Sport shoots Travis once in the neck, which isn’t enough to wind him, but does cause him to press his fingers over the wound in pain. Iris’ client, a mobster appears and shoots Travis more severely, this time in the arm, but he reveals his sleeve gun and kills the mobster. The bouncer harasses Travis, leading them into Iris’ room. Travis kills the bouncer by shooting him in the head, whilst the camera pans around the brothel, showing the blood splattered walls and floor. Iris cries hysterically, and Travis points the gun to his own head before the police arrive, only to discover that he is out of ammunition.
While recuperating, the camera shows a letter hanging from the wall of Travis’ flat. It is a letter from Iris’ parents, thanking him for rescuing her. Next to it hang newspaper clippings that hail Travis as a local hero. Travis has finally caused some of the change he so longed for.
The final scene – because the final scene was never going to be a pile of blood and dead bodies, Taxi Driver could never have ended in a homicide, shows Betsy getting into Travis’ taxi. She tries to talk about his fame with him, but he denies being a hero and drops her off free of charge. The homicide – the planning of which supposedly cured Travis of his need to be with Betsy – may have worn off as the last shot sees Travis glancing back at her through his rearview mirror.
Taxi Driver is about the deeds not done and the words not spoken. At its most basic level, it is a film about an insomniac taxi driver who has lost all faith in everything, from family life to politicians. At its best, it is the tale of desperation: of a battle with loneliness and wanting to fix the lives of those in the city, of those who are surrounded by the scum our protagonist is fascinated by. This film does insomnia, loneliness and rejection better than anyone. It makes murder a complexity, and doesn’t just dismiss the murderer as a psychopath, but someone who is intently focused on; someone who has not emerged unscathed from war but understands what must be done to change how things are.
Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese were one of the most powerful Director/Actor combinations to ever darken Hollywood’s door, and Taxi Driver, along with Mean Streets, cemented their lifelong friendship. De Niro, who worked twelve hour shifts driving taxis to prepare for the role, is fantastic. He is sparing, showing flickers of emotion as the camera passes over his face, but never revealing everything. We leave the film knowing nothing about Travis’ past, and are better for it. Harvey Keitel effortlessly conveys false bravado and a slimy, unrepentant nature as Sport. Peter Boyle is quick witted and altogether likeable as Wizard – I’m no Bertrand Russell, I’m just a cabbie. Bernard Herrmann wrote the wonderful jazz score which trickles through the film, and it suits the dimming lights and wet city streets incredibly well. But it is Scorsese and Schrader who must be applauded most of all; Scorsese for his camera shots that speak more than the characters themselves, and Schrader for bringing his loneliness and dissatisfaction together so eloquently in a near-perfect screenplay.
I likened Taxi Driver to a narcotic, because it comes in at one hour and fifty three minutes, and you’ll never quite shed the feeling it leaves you with until you watch it again. You’ll also never quite understand it: was the final scene a dream sequence? Had Travis already killed himself in the brothel? How much of it was in his own imagination? – but it’ll live with you, as it’s a film that stays in the bloodstream.