Taxi Driver (1976)
Written by Paul Schrader
Directed by Martin Scorsese
There are a lot of movies that permeated the cultural zeitgeist, referenced endlessly even in children’s programming. These were the first memes that served as shorthand to indicate a connection between the creator and the audience’s knowledge of pop culture. “You talkin’ to me?” is one of those pieces of culture that almost every person has likely encountered in some form; most of them have probably never seen Taxi Driver. There is a reason why these films breakthrough so powerfully and lodge themselves in our collective reference banks. Taxi Driver is a movie masterpiece, a confluence of perfect writing, directing, acting, musical score, editing, and every other film production element. This is not an overhyped film but a piece of cinema that people assume they understand without watching it. In an age where the incel and toxic masculinity had reached a sort of chaotic peak, Taxi Driver delivers an examination on this type of warped individual with almost clinical neutrality.
Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is a Vietnam vet who ended up in New York City. He needs work to make ends meet and to occupy his mind, which he finds in the form of driving a taxi. Travis drives through the streets at night and wanders aimlessly in the day. It doesn’t really seem like he sleeps that much. He writes in his journal about what he observes: the decay & corruption of the city. There isn’t anyone that Travis would consider a friend, but he does interact with people. Occasionally, he’ll visit an automat or diner where his fellow cabbies like Wizard (Peter Boyle) are hanging out. Travis becomes smitten with Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), a young campaign organizer for a presidential primary candidate. He also becomes obsessed with Iris’s well-being (Jodie Foster), an underaged prostitute kept under the thrall of her pimp (Harvey Keitel). But there’s this one wrinkle, Travis’s mind is broken, and we see the story through his eyes, which means not everything we see is really happening.
I personally categorize Taxi Driver as a psychological horror movie. It doesn’t get wrapped up in plot twists though it has a surprising and engrossing story. This is a pure character piece that creates a world colored in by its disturbed protagonist. Writer Paul Schrader has remarked that he thought it was about loneliness as he was writing the script. When he has revisited the film, he’s realized that Taxi Driver is about the pathology of loneliness and how solitude in a massive unfeeling city can be like a disease that rots away at your mind. As much as Travis writes about wanting the scum washed away, he is fascinating and obsessed with the decay he perceives. He frequents porno theaters in Times Square but never seems aroused by what is on screen. There’s a telling scene where he slumps down in his seat, partially covering his eyes, then moving them apart to gaze at something the audience cannot.
As much traction as the “You talkin’ to me?” scene has gotten, there are so many other quieter scenes that resonate so much more strongly (they just aren’t able to be condensed into a meme). The Murderous Husband scene where Scorsese plays a passenger that has Travis park outside the apartment where his wife is cheating on him is one moment. Not only are we hit with the use of harsh racial epithets, we observe Travis reacting to the provocative rantings of this man. Travis never judges him, but it’s clear he is uncomfortable with this expression of murderous outrage. I don’t think the husband will kill his wife, but he wants to speak to someone (preferably he will never see again) about all the horrific things he wants to do to his wife. I couldn’t help but think of the anonymity of the internet, and how it allows “mild-mannered” people, especially men, to express vile acts they would never have the guts to do in real-life (at least we can hope).
There’s the scene outside the diner where Travis asks to speak to Wizard, and it’s the only moment where the main character tries to express what is going on inside his head. Travis is not an articulate person, so his explanation is fragmented and undercut by his own comments. Wizard is a supreme bullshitter; we see him bragging to his coworkers about sexual exploits that are obviously made-up. When he’s confronted with a real person in a real moment of need, he doesn’t know what to say or do. Wizard ends up offering Travis no real help and leaves it at that. Once again, Scorsese’s examination of masculinity in his films touches on the concept that men in American culture cannot communicate about their inner lives, which leads to expressions of violence borne out of that frustration. He doesn’t make judgments about Travis or Wizard in this scene, simply observes them.
Travis has relationships with two female characters throughout the movie. There’s the failed romance with Betsy, which ends with a phone call in his apartment building lobby. This is one moment where it feels like even Scorsese’s camera is too embarrassed and pans away to look down the hall to the street outside as we hear Travis pathetically beg Betsy. He mentions sending her flowers, but she wouldn’t accept them. Those flowers are piling up in his apartment. I always found that detail odd because I wasn’t sure if a florist would reroute the purchases to the sender’s home; it made me wonder if Travis just had them sent to his own apartment in some sort of delusional state. Later, he plans to assassinate the candidate Betsy works for but stands out so clearly in the crowd the whole thing is botched.
The other female in Travis’s life is the fourteen-year-old Iris, who I think is mostly a figment of his imagination. One night, while parking his cab, a teenage girl jumps in the backseat and asks him to drive. A man pulls her out and tosses a crinkled twenty at Travis, likely so he will keep his mouth shut. Travis focuses on that bill multiple times during the second act, keeping it separate from other money, exhibiting signs of guilt overtaking it. That money marks his complicity in the decay he sees happening in the city. He’s a part of it now. By happenstance, he keeps running into Iris and eventually convinces her to come to have breakfast with him. Travis is convinced she needs to escape this world of sex work, and he’s right; she’s underaged and clearly coerced. She isn’t convinced, and so he takes it upon himself to rescue her through a bloody act of violence that leaves three men dead, Travis shot and bleeding out, and Iris hysterical in the corner.
This all could be seen as literal, and there’s certainly an argument for that. I think there’s also an argument that this is a sick hero fantasy dreamed up by Travis. In a letter to his parents, he lies to them that he’s undercover doing work for the government. In his journal, he obsesses about “cleaning up” the streets. There are also several shots where Travis lays in his bed, voice overplaying, seemingly daydreaming about the things he wants to do. This matches the final aerial glimpse of the hotel brothel where Travis murders the pimps and hustlers. Travis takes prescription meds possibly related to pain (as we glimpse a nasty war-related scar) on his back or for mental health issues. And that final scene, Betsy getting into his cab without the audience ever seeing her open the door and her telling Travis how impressed she was to hear about his heroics in the news. How would Betsy have ever found his cab in the middle of New York City? And what she says is the exact sort of thing he would fantasize about. Through sound and visuals, which become abstracted as the credits roll, Scorses indicates something is off. Travis’s mind is not entirely grounded in reality, and so the audience is expected to question what he tells us.
Taxi Driver is one of the must-see films. It has been often mimicked but rarely matched. Todd Phillips’s Joker is just a terrible misunderstanding of the material that falls into that annoying realm of the protagonist saying the theme aloud. Travis Bickle never sounds crazy when he talks to other people; he can present himself as a cogent and can even be rational. He’s right that Iris needs to leave prostitution, and he’s right that many horrible things are being allowed in the city. That’s the way dangerous people are in real life. The Joker is a gross exaggeration presented as “realistic & gritty” when it’s just as stylized as Shazam. Travis’s story is so chilling because it feels like real people who are lost in neutral systems, almost guiding them down a path of self-destruction.