“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” – Martin Scorsese
Over the years, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver has been interpreted in many different ways. People have come away with theories about how the film is a paranoid hallucination of a lonely man, a feminist work about the unstable ideals of masculinity, an existential exploration of modernity and so on and so forth ad infinitum. At the centre of all these multiplicities is Travis Bickle, a character brilliantly played by Robert De Niro, who is a wannabe vigilante who embarks on a path of self-destruction as the takes it upon himself to erase the scum of the Earth.
It should come as no surprise that the screenplay for Taxi Driver was a manifestation of Paul Schrader’s intense loathing and pathological loneliness. The women in his life had forsaken him, he was in debt, and he was no longer involved with the American Film Institute. He practically lived in his car, frequented pornographic theatres and kept drinking until he developed a stomach ulcer. “Taxi Driver was written when I couldn’t really distinguish between the pain in the work and the pain in my life,” he said, and that’s exactly what makes the subject matter so universal and personal simultaneously.
The film focuses its investigations on Travis, an ex-Marine who takes up a job as a cabby because of his insomnia. His loneliness is not a circumstantial phenomenon but a fundamental disconnect that separates him from the world around him. Influenced by French New Wave sensibilities, cinematographer Michael Chapman translates the lack of any definitive structure in Travis’ story to the visual narrative as well. Parallels can be drawn with Scorsese’s earlier work on the 1973 project Mean Streets, but Taxi Driver is its own entity. Travis floats around the nightmarish cityscape of New York in his taxi, and we find ourselves with him inside the cab, either looking inwards at the man behind the wheel or looking out the window at the animals of the night. Although he has control over his vehicle, he does not have mastery over his own life as most of the narrative is driven by chance encounters. Unable to tolerate the people he meets on the job, Travis wishes:
“Someday a real rain’ll come and wash all the scum off the streets.”
While deciding how to proceed with the project, Schrader drew inspiration from John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and existential texts like Sartre’s Nausea. He even read the diaries of Arthur Bremer who attempted to assassinate presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972; De Niro would listen to a taped recording of the same over and over again during his preparations for the role. Taxi Driver indulges in political and philosophical commentary, but the film exists in an abstract realm. Scorsese believed that films were extensions of dreams or drug-induced visions, using it to shape Taxi Driver in the same way. Bernard Herrmann’s (who passed away right after completing his work on Taxi Driver) fantastic score amplifies this hallucinatory feeling. There are no visible divisions between fact and fiction, whether Travis is a consequence of his concrete environment or his intangible delusions.
The film takes the disillusionment of the European existential (anti)hero and places it in an American framework. Bernard Queysanne’s 1974 French film The Man Who Sleeps is a perfect example of this: it features a depressed 25-year-old student who reads, sleeps, watches films and goes about the same monotonous routine day after day while hoping for an escape but there is none. On the other hand, Travis cannot sleep, and he writes his own memoir. Unlike the intellectual man who sleeps, his thoughts are not polished, and the stuff he watches is exclusively pornographic. The only discernible constant that underlines his writings and his rambling monologues to himself is a feeling of hatred that threatens to consume him. In order to externalise this hatred, he focuses his efforts on saving women who do not want to be saved, but he cannot even save himself. He is “partly truth, partly fiction—a walking contradiction.”
Travis oscillates between two very different female figures as he comes to terms with his own masculinity. Many critics have already pointed out that this is a classic example of Freud’s ‘Madonna-whore complex’; he desires to be a part of the pompously political world of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign volunteer whom he perceives to be perfect and untouchable which contributes to his psychological impotence. On the other end of the spectrum is Iris (played by Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute who needs to be safely extracted from her disgusting world of dope slingers, perverted paedophile and manipulative pimps. However, all of this is based on a primary hatred of women. These women become the basis of his motivations, but they are always on the outside. They have their own worlds while his world is always in transit, always having to accommodate sick people who want to obliterate their wives’ genitals with a .44 Magnum. The only place he can truly call his own is his apartment, a chaotic training ground where he is closed off from everyone. In this dystopian unit of urban isolation, Travis indulges in Mexican standoffs with his own reflection and tries to make sense of his own paranoia by talking to himself. The “honourably discharged” Vietnam veteran does not know what to do with his latent aggression, frustrated with the world that is indifferent to him and the women who reject him for being himself. Even his attempts to fashion his individual identity after definite archetypes fail miserably, he is too isolated to be assimilated into cultural sects. Travis tries to be a Secret Service cowboy superhero, but he ends up becoming a two-bit killer. He is a neo-cowboy who is doomed to ride a metal horse for eternity, lost in a shit-riddled wasteland:
“Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere… I’m God’s lonely man.”
After donning a creepy mohawk hairstyle and attempting to assassinate Betsy’s political hero Charles Palantine, Travis begins the final leg of his spiritual journey. Even though his body is perforated by bullets, he kills the men who were exploiting Iris and then tries to kill himself. This is the logical conclusion of his delusions of grandeur: he thinks he is a samurai who has to commit “harakiri” to save himself from disgrace. No matter which guns he picks up, they are all empty. As Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.” Sadly, Travis still doesn’t have control over his life because he does not understand what it is, who he is.
With a creepy smile plastered on his face, he impotently points a finger gun at himself. The camera glances over Travis’ pathetic legacy: scattered weapons, bloodstained walls and the corpses of human trash. He does manage to “save” Iris, at least technically speaking. Her parents thank him, newspapers cover his story, but these are fleeting moments of recognition. There is a good chance that these article clippings will become the highlight of his empty life, forcing him to revisit the “bad ideas in [his] head” in order to prevent the ennui from setting in. The final sequence of the film is probably the most debated one: Betsy takes a ride in his cab and seems to finally accept him for his “heroism”. Many claim that this is the resolution that Travis was looking for and is integral to the story. Others believe that is the greatest evidence of it being a dream sequence, Travis makes it all up because the world still does not care about him. In an interview, Schrader indicated that he did not intend the scene as a part of a dream, but it does signify that Travis is still lost and that his final act of adjusting the rear-view mirror to reflect the rapidly changing external world is a circular device that brings the viewer back to the start of the film.
The main reason why Taxi Driver has remained significant after almost half a century is its lack of dogmatism; it urges the viewer to make of Travis what they will. Depending on your own feelings of loneliness or (supposed) lack thereof, you will place yourself behind the wheel or reject him like the rest of the world. Despite your judgement, Travis will keep driving around the city while judging you with contemptuous ideas because he is a symptom of your obsession as well as neglect.