Breaking Down Martin Scorsese’s Masterpiece Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver is the story of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a 26 years old honorably discharged U.S marine, living in solitude. The movie was set in post-Vietnam New York with its dirt, dysfunction, and prostitution. He suffers from insomnia and to cope with this, he works as a taxi driver, working all through the night in New York city, as well as visiting porn theatres. He also keeps a diary.
The first thing that people notice about ‘Taxi Drive‘r is how hypnotic it is. Taxi Driver depicts a nightmarish portrayal of mid-1970’s New York City with its stark use of shadows, vibrant reds, and omniscient camera movement. Director Martin Scorsese has explained that the idea for Taxi Driver arose from his feelings that movies often behave as dreams or drug-induced reveries and that the hypnotic sensibility of Taxi Driver operates with the attempt to incubate viewers in a limbo state between sleeping and waking.
Travis was infatuated with Betsy (Cybill Sheperd), a campaign volunteer for presidential candidate Charles Palantine who was a senator at the time. Travis enters to volunteers so that he can have a chance to talk to her after watching her from the window of the coffee shop several times as she interacts with fellow worker Tom. He takes her out for coffee as she noticed how strange he was.
On people’s impression that the script is based on Arthur Bremmer’s Diaries, Paul Schrader, the writer of the script in an interview with Kent Jones corrected the impression saying that though he knew about Bremmer, the diaries had not been published yet when he wrote the movie. When the diaries were published, he was also surprised there so many moments of synchronicity between Bremmer’s diaries and the film he had written.
However, he has cited Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes from the Underground’ in which an isolated and bitter narrator delivers rambling monologues. Just like the diary entries that were ever present throughout Taxi Driver, Schrader states that he saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero and place him in an American context. By doing so, the subject matter devolves to become more juvenile.
If you listen to Travis’s journal entries, you’ll often find that they’re childlike and contains little or no substance e.g.
”All my life needed was a place to go, I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid things like self-attention. I believe that one should become a person like other people’’. His worldview isn’t intellectual but rather shallow and conceited.
His worldview isn’t intellectual but rather shallow and conceited.
Travis struggled with existential grief, but he isn’t strong enough to recognize the source of his issues. His biggest problem is he can’t understand the source of his turmoil and this causes him to project his anger externally, through strokes of brutal violence. Scorsese has remarked that most of the film was inspired by John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ and that Travis in many ways is a contemporary manifestation of Ethan Edward, a character who was also narratively focused on rescuing women. There’s a lot of Western and Native American imagery littered throughout Taxi Driver. Travis dresses and behaves like a cowboy, his taxi cab operating as his horse metaphorically speaking. Another Native American imagery in the movie is that Sports wears native American clothing and Travis wears a low-cut Mohawk in his most destructive phase of the narrative.
Travis attempted to let out his frustration with the city by engaging in intense physical training. A fellow taxi driver hooks him up with a gun dealer, Easy Andy, who sold a number of handguns to him. When he’s not driving his cab, he practices drawing his weapons makes a sleeve gun to hide and then quickly bring out a gun from his sleeve.
Like ‘The Searchers’, racism plays a subtle backdrop to Taxi Driver stocking Travis’s violent nature. The first crime he committed with the guns was when he violently shot the robber (a black American) of a convenience store he visited one night. However, he was not apprehended as the shop owner took responsibility for shooting the robber, by taking his handgun.
Much like Ethan Edwards, Travis is a societal reject. In fact, Betsy remarked on his strange personality earlier in Taxi Driver, referring to him as a walking contradiction. She’s right. Travis hates the scum meanness of New York but frequents porn theaters and drives around prostitutes. He talks about maintaining a proper diet, but he pours liquor on his breakfast and pours pills consistently.
The truth is Travis is lonely, and as a result, he’s a mismatch of various ideologies. For example, even though Travis maintained he isn’t political, he put Palantine stickers all over his room. Why? Because, Betsy, the woman he’s attracted to is a political supporter of him. So, he latches on to this. His whole courtship with her is based on this notion that Travis is desperate to fit in, to assimilate himself into a normal life after his time in Vietnam.
Now let’s talk about the women of Taxi Driver. This film is half about Travis’s relationship with these women- Iris and Betsy. Be it the violently sexualized world of Iris, a child prostitute (Jodie Foster) or the political superficiality that Betsy surrounds herself with, the lives these characters lead are paralleled and furthermore mirrored by Travis’s cloudy attempts at heroism.
So, let’s begin by looking at Betsy. She is first introduced to the audience in an angelic manner as a woman who was pure. Travis only looks at her from afar, as if window shopping on a life style in which he can never actually partake. On subsequent dates, he took her to a porn theatre, and she lives angrily. His attempt at reconciliation was rebuffed by Betsy, and he was thrown out by Tom. But while Betsy is pure, Iris is the opposite. She was dumped into Travis’s cab like a lost child.
Travis met Iris when she was trying to attempt to escape from Sports, her pimp. Sports dragged her out of the cab and threw a crumpled twenty-dollar bill at Travis. The encounter continually reminds him of her and the corruption in the city. Later, Travis hired Iris, but he did not have sex with her. Instead, he tries to persuade her into stopping prostitution. Even though she was not convinced, she agrees to have breakfast with him the next day. He left a note about his impending death for her with some money, advising her to go home.
Travis shaved his head into a mohawk and attended a public rally with an intention to assassinate Senator Palantine. However, secret service agents chased him off when they noticed him with his hands in his coat. He escaped to East village and invaded Sport’s brothel.
During the bloody gun fight that ensued in Iris’s presence, he murdered Sport as well as Mafioso and a bouncer. She was hysterical with fear, pleading with him to stop the killing. Travis sustained severe injuries as a result of the gunfight; then he attempted suicide. However, he has run out of ammunition, so he resigned himself to lying down and waiting for the cops.
When Travis recovered from his woods and resumed work, he discovered that the press had turned him into a hero, showering praises on him for killing the bad guys. Even Iris’s father regards him as a hero, who saved his daughter. Travis received a letter of thanks from him. The letter revealed that Iris is back home with her family and also gone back to school. To crown it all, he reconciled with Betsy when he dropped her at home with his taxi. He merely smiles at her when she wanted to pay the cab fare and turned the meter off.
For Travis, the bridge quality between these two women are the men in their lives. What Travis notices and clings on to in Betsy and Iris is that both of these two women are puppets to social and political figures. But this perception is formed after Betsy rejects Travis romantically. He’s incapable of seeing Betsy’s dismissiveness as anything but a superficial perception of his persona and this is key to his character.
Travis develops a hatred for the lifestyles that reject him, and as a result, his repressed egotism grows. He labels Palantine and Sports as figureheads for his vexation. While Sports is characterized by his physical qualities, Palantine relies on charm and this contrast of physicality versus personality is demonstrated in other ways throughout Taxi Driver as well.
For example, take this scene at the beginning of the movie with Betsy and Tom, when she told Tom that a Taxi Driver has been starring at them. Notice how when Betsy is initially bothered by Travis’s presence, she tells Tom, her guardian, to verbally excuse Travis. She uses politics to dismiss her problems. On the other hand, when Iris was bothered by Travis’s presence, she grabbed the arms of a man to protect her.
And so, these themes of status and masculinity begins to sink into Travis psyche triggering his destructive rampage. He decides that he must defeat Sport and Palantine in this pseudo westernized battle to give his life a sense of purpose as he puts it.
In a 1976 interview with Roger Ebert, Scorsese and Shrader explained that Taxi Driver in many ways is a feminist film and that Travis is an exploration of the confused masculine character’. Scorsese remarks that Travis exhibits the goddess whore complex. This is a psychoanalytic condition first identified by Sigmund Freud, in which men cannot achieve intimacy in a loving relationship and thus tend to define women as either Madonna’s or whores.
In Travis’s mind Betsy and Iris become symbols of status and purity, and so he deludes himself into believing his avenge mission is motivated by altruism to rescue them from oppression. But in reality, his actions are larger attempts to display his masculinity towards the aggressors in his life. And because he was romantically rejected by Betsy, he resorts to expressing his masculinity in a psycho-sexual form of violence. Stuck on this now, what’s fascinating about the final act of Taxi Driver is Travis’s immortalization he becomes an accidental hero, and it’s no secret that he’s monstrous and his intentions in Betsy’s world Travis is a vigilante eager to advance the decay of society in Iris. He’s a cowboy, a Lone ranger ready to rescue a captive, and in this regard, Travis is mistaken by the public as a hero ironically the film fulfills Travis’s self-declared destiny in an accidental and superficial sense.
Many have speculated that the movie’s final scene is a dream sequence, but it might not be so for some reasons because while this scene has a dreamlike tone, there is an underlying hint of unease that defines the ending more definitively. The narrative perspective of this film is singular, and because of that, we view the world through Travis’s eyes, and if you study this scene, you’ll find it’s entirely composed of tight close-ups of Travis. Betsy is only framed through his rear-view mirror as if to present her a step removed from reality but none of this is to say that what we’re seeing is a dream sequence. Betsy’s presence in this scene makes sense.
It is simply a product of Travis’s fractured view of reality and the pivotal moment is after Betsy leaves when we see Travis’s manic being show up again. He kept staring at space. It’s at this time that we see Travis is still deeply unstable. He’s a ticking time bomb waiting to blow again. This film is, in essence, a study of what happens to a man in solitude. How loneliness shapes him, drives him to points of insanity and me the most interesting facet of Taxi Driver is how Scorsese fools us.
As an audience, Scorsese seduced us into liking Travis, into finding his condition relatable in some senses. But at some point, he betrays us, and it’s with this trick that Scorsese forces us to look inward at ourselves.
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