Movies That Everyone Should See: “Taxi Driver”

“Taxi Driver” was released in February of 1976.

America was a country with a deeply wounded psyche at the time. The President was Gerald Ford, who had been Richard Nixon’s Vice President throughout the Watergate scandal. The sentencings of Nixon’s White House aides, along with John Mitchell, the former Attorney General of the United States, were not even 12 months removed. The summer prior, America had lost a war for the first time. The country watched as Saigon fell, and people scrambled to abandon the US Embassy.

America needed a hero.

Instead, Martin Scorsese gave us Travis Bickle…

It’s clean, real clean. Like my conscience.

We’re introduced to Travis Bickle as he applies for a job driving a taxi.

Bickle was a Marine who received his honorable discharge in 1973. Given the timing, it’s an easy conclusion to leap to that he served in Vietnam. Yet, I’m cautious with that… I feel if Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader had wanted to make a movie that spoke to the plight of Vietnam vets, they’d have given the viewer more to work with in that regard.

What we DO know about Travis is that he can’t sleep. He can’t sleep, and he’ll work anytime, anywhere. What we don’t realize yet is that Bickle wants to fill his time with work because he has nothing better to do. Since he can’t sleep nights, he’s been riding around the city on the subways and buses… just killing time.

He’s lonely, he’s isolated. He has too much time on his hands.

Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

One of the reasons he gets the job is because he doesn’t mind working nights, and he’s not afraid of taking the fares that take him into the dangerous parts of the city. He’s in a cab in short order, and we’re introduced to the second major character in the movie, the film’s setting, the city of New York.

The cab flows through the veins of the city like a corpuscle. Through Bickle’s rain-soaked windshield, the lights of the city night blur into a painting in motion. The saxophone pours the main theme’s plaintive, lonely, jazzy moan and there are times -when he first starts hacking – that it’s tempting to romanticize the city.

But this is not romanticized view of anything. Instead, Scorsese gives us the dark heart of the city. Bickle’s world is inhabited by prostitutes and pimps, gun dealers and drug dealers. Gangs. Murderers. Scum. Filth. They’re his fares, they get in his cab. Each night he has to wipe the cab free of bodily fluids. He sees it all. Like being on a constant tour of famous crime scenes, without the fame, Bickle is taken around the city and through the perverse passion play that unfolds on its sidewalks night after night after night.

It’s no wonder that Betsy appears to be an angel to him.

They cannot… touch… her.

Bickle sees Betsy at her work, campaigning for Charles Palantine for President.

He’s struck by her beauty… He watches her for a brief time, then summons the courage to barge into the office and ask her out. His honesty and his intensity momentarily win the day. Betsy agrees to have coffee with him on her break.

His attempts to woo Betsy illustrate how isolated Bickle is from society. He has no idea who Charles Palantine is, or what he stands for. When Betsy asks him about music, he’s at a loss, pretending his stereo is broken. He has the candidate she works for as a fare in his cab on night, but he fails to leverage that in conversation with her. When the time comes to take her out, he’s so socially inept that he takes her to a porno movie.

I realize now how much she’s just like the others, cold and distant, and many people are like that…

So her rejection of him, to me, is a social rejection, not simply a romantic one.

In his sole other attempt to “socialize” in the movie, his attempt to connect with Peter Boyle, Bickle fails to connect as well. He tries to talk to someone, to tell someone that he’s… becoming unstable, and what he gets is “I’m a cabbie, what do I know,” and, “ehhh, you’ll be alright.”

With no connections, unable to sleep, surrounded by moral decay and rejected by society, Bickle becomes unhinged.

I really… I really wanna… I’ve got some bad ideas in my head.

Loner. Isolated. Ostracized. Maladjusted… Bickle is about to add Psychotic and Dangerous to the list of unfavorable adjectives which can be applied to him.

His diary entries, our connection to his thoughts, become darker, more aggressive.

“June twenty-ninth. I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 pushups each morning, 50 pullups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight.”

He begins working out, arming himself, pushing his endurance and tolerance for pain. He undergoes a militaristic training regimen for a yet unannounced mission. The viewer watches as his rope becomes taut. He compresses like a spring-loaded trap.

In one of the many social commentaries of the movie, it’s easier for Travis Bickle to buy a small cache of personal handguns than it is for him to find a friend, or to make a romantic connection.

Isn’t that a little honey?

The focus of his obsession becomes Senator Palantine, the presidential candidate. There may be some residual bitterness for Palantine placating him in the cab, or over the fact that Betsy rejected him and she works for Palantine, but I feel that it’s mainly just that Palantine is famous, and important, and Bickle isn’t. Bickle has been rejected, he’s a societal malfunction. Killing someone important would be an empowering act, something that commanded attention and regard from a world that is currently happy to completely ignore him.

And we’re left with no doubt that he’s capable of it, either. In his first act of vigilantism, Bickle shoots a convenience store robber in the head, killing him. In shades of things to come, not only does he get away with it, the store owner is grateful to him.

But before completing his “Work for the Government”, Bickle has one more thing he wants to do. He wants to free the young prostitute who tried to escape her current existence by getting into his cab one night.

I don’t know who’s weirder, you or me…

Iris, as we learn her name is, is 12.

Her pimp, Sport, informs Bickle that he can do anything he likes with her. But no rough stuff. When Bickle talks with her, after paying for her time, he learns that she’s a runaway, and a drug user.

Bickle may be psychotic, but he has a moral center. This is wrong, and he’s certain of it. To him, the perpetrators of crimes such as the selling of Iris for sexual favors are inhuman. Scum. Vermin. Animals. So when his attempt to assassinate Palantine fails (in a demonstration of his ineffectualism), Bickle’s attention turns to them. They bear the brunt of his pent-up frustrations, his anger at the evils of society, and his desire to, in some way, be a person of power.

What unfolds is a scene of legendary violence. It may be defrayed now by decades of violence on film, but it was highly controversial at the time. Scorsese had to desaturize the colors and thus de-emphasize the blood in the scene in order to achieve an R rating.

Not having a bullet left for himself, Bickle survives the shootout. Roger Ebert has put forth a possible interpretation that Bickle actually died from his wounds, and the denouement celebrating him as a hero and his brief reunion with Betsy are in fact, post-mortem delusions.

I find it far more interesting that he lived, however.

The glorification of Bickle after his killing spree is a condemnation of the media, and of the society of the “Taxi Driver”-verse (our society), as a whole. Certainly Bickle is no hero, he was moments away from killing a political figure. The only reason he didn’t kill himself was that he ran out of bullets. Holding the scum of the city responsible for their crimes is one thing… summary executions are another. It’s a mixed blessing at best, and is Travis Bickle really the type of person we would want sitting judge, jury and executioner? As opposed to celebrating vigilantism, I think “Taxi Driver” unglamorizes it, and points more to the fact that our society often does a piss poor job of knowing who to honor and who to vilify.

Focusing on the vigilante violence of “Taxi Driver” overlooks the broader meaning, however. As much as it’s a film that speaks to crime and violence, I feel the heart of “Taxi Driver” deals with isolation and the absence of social interaction. How, if marginalized and discarded, people can become unstable. Violence is a logical output… It’s a film about loneliness and the tragedy which can result from the failure to make genuine connections with others.

That’s a timeless message, and thankfully, this film has been preserved by the National Film Registry.

“Taxi Driver” won enormous critical acclaim upon its release, and is still highly regarded to this day. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in ’76, and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Score. Jodie Foster won two BAFTAs (Best Supporting Actress and Best Newcomer) It came in at #47 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Films, and remained in the same general vicinity ten years later (#52) when the tenth anniversary edition was released. Bickle’s quote, “Are you talkin’ to me?” made the top ten on their list of the top 100 movie quotes of all time, and Bickle himself came in at #30 on their list of 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains.

On the “Villains” side.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

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34 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Taxi Driver”

  1. This is such a strange film haha, but brilliant one at that. Nice review!

    If I may ask, what is your interpretation of the ending?

    • He lives… society hails him and he finds a greater level of acceptance and self worth.

      But as evidenced by the sound effect and rear-view mirror grab right before the credits roll, he’ll never be completely mentally stable. Thus, like other killers, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before his psychosis re-emerges and he lashes out again.

      That’s where I’m at at least Matt… you?

      And thanks for reading!

  2. I find this film to be very haunting and thought provoking. Scorsese is such an amazing director! While this isn’t my favorite film of his, I still really like it and agree that everyone should see it. I watched it for the first time a few years ago, and when I finished it my feeling was, “They just don’t make them like they used to.”

    Great write-up, man.

    • Thanks man, appreciate that.

      Yeah, actually not my favorite Scorsese film either, but that’s no crime. I mean, the man as a LOADED resume. LOL. An abundance of riches to choose from.

      And you’re right, they dont make them like that anymore. This movie would be an indie at best, nowadays, and only get a limited release. In 1976, this was a commercial success!

  3. Excellent job Daniel. I’m surprised you did’nt mention the second most controversal scene in the movie. Scorsese himself riding in Travis’s cab to hell! What a scene. A long time reviewer’s favorite. Scorsese’s Mean Streets etched a monster out of Travis Bickle’s simpleton.

    • Thanks!

      Yeah, I don’t know… it’s already at 1,500 words plus, so you have to pick and choose your battles.

      That scene is legendary, of course, but it fits in with the rest of the scum and villany that gets in and out of his cab.

      I never realized though, until I just watched the movie on Blu for this write up – Scorsese is actually in the movie a second time. He’s sitting on the steps as Cybill Shepherd walks down the street and into her office the first time. Just a trivial little thing I noticed…

  4. Fogs,

    Great write up. Classic movie and totally disturbing. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much. And here I thought it was just a movie about a crazy taxi driver. Keep up the great work.

    Diggs

  5. This is still on my “to see” list, as with so many classics. I actually knew very little about it until now, except of course, for “Are you talkin’ to me?” and knowing that there was some sort of a vigilante nature to the character of Travis Bickle. Reading your write-up, and your interpretation, I’m even more eager to check this out, partly due to its reputed quality, and also because I’m curious how its perspective on vigilantism compares with Death Wish (which although it had some exploitation-film overtones and isn’t anywhere near as highly regarded, also certainly had a philosophy in its depiction of vigilantism and wasn’t just “Bullets! Awesome!”) It sounds like there’s a certain similarity in tone, which is interesting in light of how both films seem to be embraced by would-be vigilantes even though both portray their protagonists as fundamentally broken individuals.

    • I’m going to cop to the fact that I havent seen “Death Wish” in over 20 years… and if anything, I probably have it blurred in with the sequels in my memory.

      My knee jerk reaction though is to say that they’re not on the same level. I dont want to be dismissive or anything… it’s just that “Taxi Driver” is such a great piece of work that I think comparisons will probably end with the subject matter. Could be wrong though…

      This is one of those you should address when you get a chance. It’s a pretty challenging movie, man.

      • Oh, I’m sure that Taxi Driver is a much better film. I wouldn’t go giving Death Wish 5 stars or anything. Smarter than its reputation, perhaps (and the sequels no doubt hurt that quite a bit), but though I liked it, I’d be surprised to see it break the top 50 of any list that wasn’t overly narrow; Taxi Driver, by contrast, has been on my list for years simply on weight of just how often it does crack such lists. The idea of comparing the two simply sprung to mind because I’m not sure I can think of any other notable films that really take a look at the thought process that goes into becoming a vigilante; usually it’s just mindless violence.

  6. Skipping over the comments to avoid getting spoiled. This on my “to-watch-soon” list. I think I’ve got it recorded on my sky box… maybe over Christmas! An antidote to the Christmasy films?

      • Jaina, you won’t be disappointed. Fog’s write up in my opinion is one of the best he’s done so far. And the movie, it will definitely not disappoint you. And if feeling overwhelmed during Christmas, what better way to unwind than with Travis? Merry Christmas.

  7. An unforgettable classic indeed. Very few movies these days could manage to have an “odd” character like Travis Bickle as a protagonist or end the way Taxi Driver does.

  8. Excellent dissection as usual sir. You’ve made me want to sit down with it again. I remember it instilling an overall feeling of nausea when I first seen it. Maybe this is why I never took to it amd this was possibly an intention of Scorsese’s. I love the look, the score and several scenes are classics. My particular favourite the discussion between Travis and Sport on the sidewalk. DeNiro and Keitel are marvellous together. Due to your review, I’ll give it another go sometime soon.

    • “You’ve made me want to sit down with it again”

      Heheheh. This is what I do! :)

      Totally worth it Mark, absolutely. I mean, I can easily, easily see why it might not leave the best first impression, but you really should give it another shot if you think its anything less than great right now. Its a shining example of 70s filmmaking. A dark character piece that speaks volumes about society. Now that the initial revulsion has worn off (and thats totally understandable) you’ll just see the genius. :)

      Thanks for swinging back through and checking this one out!!! :D

  9. Fantastic. You really hit it home Fogs! I feel like Travis at times, I consider myself a loner and scoff at how idiotic society is and the filth that comes with it. I’m fueled with violent aggression but instead of acting on it like Travis does, I filter it through film and music. One of the greatest film ever no question, it even graces my top 10 as well. And yes this film soothes me so ;)

    • LOL. Well, I think we all have to suffer the slings and arrows at some point or another, Blain. The world, most assuredly, is not perfect.

      Its easy to take comfort in a great film like this though. I know that feeling well. And yes, this is one thats worthy of anyone’s top ten, really… Its not in mine, but I certainly wouldnt scoff at anyone if it was in theirs. :)

  10. Loved this review. Makes me want to see the movie again. Even though I’ve probably already seen it about ten times or more! One more won’t hurt!

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