#33 - Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)

 note: article contains spoilers and may actually require a viewing of "Taxi Driver"



The Study of Character

As everyone knows the 70’s where quite a cornerstone for American cinema. The old studio system crumbled by the start of the decade and this opened the doors of Hollywood for a whole generation of young filmmakers. Filmmakers that were much more in tune with the zeitgeist of the times. Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader belong to this generation and with “Taxi Driver” they in many ways made the quintessential American film of the 70’s.

The simple reason for why I’d say this is because, for me, “Taxi Driver” seems to capture the cynicism and anxiety of the post-Vietnam post-Watergate USA perfectly, as well as the overall social discontent that was prevalent at the time. And it does it in the wonderful format of a first person narrative - meaning that we see the world of the film and its events exclusively through the point of view of a single character. There are other films that very much follow this storytelling method, but I find that no movie does it better than “Taxi Driver” and that is primarily because of the character at the center of it – Travis Bickle. This in turn makes it one of the best character studies ever put on film.

But the film is not fully in Bickle’s point of view. There are a few scenes in the Palantine campaign office that play out without Travis’ presence, although he is in the vicinity. And there’s a scene later in the film with Sport and Iris that takes place completely without Travis. He is nowhere near them. By the way this is not a complaint, far from it. In fact I want to say that although the film is an exemplary exercise in first person narrative filmmaking, it is never a slave of its storytelling method.

The thing that makes Travis great as a character is that he is dealing with problems that a lot of people can relate with, loneliness and alienation, but he also has a very strict sense of morality and decency. A lot of sympathy is brought to the character by Robert De Niro as well, and he makes it hard not to root for Travis despite the fact that he is clearly spiraling in to madness. And there is always something slightly off with Travis apart from his diary rants, like the way he interacts with others. Even these interactions start spiraling gradually out of control. At first he just seems distant, but things get weird fast. Just remember his date with Betsy.

Still, there’s something potentially revealing in that date. As we all know Travis takes Betsy to see a porno film, but it’s not just any kind of porno it’s an educational sex film. Why does he do this? As banal as it may sound, we know that Travis does not need to be educated about sex because we saw him watching hardcore pornography earlier. We also know that he holds Betsy in very high regard, maybe even worships her. But does he think her that pure and innocent? Or on the other hand that easy? Or is this just Travis’ ignorance rearing its ugly head?  He apologetically states that he does not know a lot about movies, just as he does not know much about music or politics.

Whatever his reasoning, one thing this surely reflects is his sexual repression. The fact that Travis is a sexually repressed individual is not there in the text of the film, but clear pointers are riddled throughout. Like how he sees couples out on the streets or the scene with the TV, in which Travis is watching some music program with couples dancing on the TV, as well in the later scene with the TV where he watches a melodramatic scene from some shitty soap, before kicking the TV over. Also note that during both of these scenes Travis is holding on to his magnum.

Another thing that is easy to miss is the racism of his character, and it is one of the more subtle themes woven through “Taxi Driver”. But I’d say that Travis does not start the film as a racist, and that these feelings are initiated by the rejection he receives from the girl working in the porno cinema. She was ethnic and Travis was openly interested. And after that rejection the way he sees blacks and other minorities on the street changes drastically. It’s never in the dialogue or shown overtly but the camera-work is obviously telling a story of its own. The way he sees the black pimps at the coffee shop, or his black co-worker and if that is not clear enough his first victim is a black man as well.

The mentioned sexual repression mixed with the rejections also inspires Travis to hate women, and eventually leads to his violent outburst. The building of his misogyny is actually referred to in one of his monologues after Travis is rejected by Betsy, and is further supported in the scene where Travis buys guns. He points the snub-nose revolver out of the window and his hand moves over the street and trees and stops, pointing the gun at two women outside. So how does this fit in to his mission to rescue Iris? Well I don’t think that he even sees Iris as a woman, but as a child. He sees an uncorrupted innocence in her, which pretty much equates her with Betsy who he idolized before.

Even his shooting spree seems more like a vendetta against the people that surround her, than a genuine act of heroism like the end of the film paints it to be. And it started as a planed act of violence against the symbol (the presidential candidate and father figure) that Betsy supports, and when that goes wrong he goes to Iris, who in many ways is Betsy’s substitute. His sexual repression explodes in to an act of violence against another father figure, Sport. But in the very last scene Betsy returns to Travis, maybe even with the intention for a relationship, it’s hard to say. His cold treatment of her shows that Travis has probably not changed much and possibly even holds a grudge. He is still a tempered bomb, just waiting to blow up again.

What makes this film such a masterpiece is that it actually manages to make such a hateful character sympathetic while providing a window in to the mind of a man that is gradually going mad. And no matter how deranged Travis gets he is always human, which is probably the scariest part of it all.


Robert De Niro - Travis Bickle
Cybill Shephard - Betsy
Jodie Foster - Iris
Harvey Keitel - Sport
Peter Boyle - Wizard

Taxi Driver on IMDb

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