“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.
“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.
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”.