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Film

Why the ending of 'Taxi Driver' might not be as optimistic as you think

@Russellisation

Taxi Driver may just be the magnum-opus of Martin Scorsese’s glittering career, beating out the likes of Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed and Mean Streets to claim supremacy at the very top of the filmmaker’s repertoire. Winning the director a Palme d’Or in 1976 as well as several Oscar nominations, Taxi Driver helped to elevate the profile of Scorsese as well as lead actor Robert De Niro before they would both go on to dominate the industry from the 1980s through to the ‘90s.

The story itself follows Travis Bickle (De Niro), a mentally unstable man working as a taxi driver in New York who reaches breaking point who attempts to help liberate an underage prostitute (Jodie Foster) among others. With help from a powerhouse performance from De Niro, the film becomes an uncompromising psychoanalysis of a man whose psychological scars form a fascinating exploration of the struggles and pessimism of the 1970s. 

Written by Paul Schrader, arguably the film is merely brought to life by Martin Scorsese with the screenwriter being the real visionary behind the compelling story. Inspired by his own experiences of young life, Schrader also drew from the tales of Arthur Bremer as well as the films of Alfred Hitchcock, including The Wrong Man.

Speaking to The American Film Institute, Paul Schrader reveals how he saw the film as a project of self-therapy, noting, “Taxi Driver was my first script and I wrote that as self-therapy”.

Continuing, the screenwriter added: “I was in a dark place, drinking and driving, I didn’t have a place to live, I had a gun in the car and I had a pain in my stomach…I hadn’t spoken to anybody in weeks, I had just been drifting through the city with this anger, here in town in Los Angeles”. 

The dark truth behind the ending of ‘Taxi Driver’

Paul Schrader’s tormented taxi driver prowls the soggy streets of New York on a mission to repair society one person at a time, devoting his time to helping the young prostitute, Iris. In an attempt to liberate her, Travis Bickle confronts and kills her pimp named ‘Sport’ before engaging in a shootout with her clients, murdering them whilst becoming hurt in the process. Once the police arrive he is blood-soaked and all out of bullets, imitating shooting himself before he falls into a coma due to his injuries. 

Celebrated as a hero once he awakes, he receives a letter from Iris’ father who thanks him for his efforts and Travis Bickle returns to work with a renewed sense of enlightenment. Though, what if this ending wasn’t as optimistic as Schrader and Scorsese suggest? The film’s very last shot shows an erratic Bickel glancing in his mirror, nodding to a darker fate for the character. 

As a fanciful protagonist, it is unclear how far we can trust Travis Bickle, with many fans suggesting that he dies in the shootout scene, and this final section is simply played out in the character’s mind. Such would explain the film’s ominous final shot that sees Robert De Niro’s character erratically drive down the dark streets of a hellish New York, perhaps in eternal purgatory. 

Even the influential Roger Ebert felt there was more to the film’s ending, writing in his original review for the film, “Did Travis survive the shoot-out? Are we experiencing his dying thoughts? Can the sequence be accepted as literally true?”.

Continuing, the writer added, “The end sequence plays like music, not drama: It completes the story on an emotional, not a literal, level. We end not on carnage but on redemption, which is the goal of so many of Scorsese’s characters”.

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