Taxi Driver Review
When one considers Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the first thing they usually think of is “You talkin’ to me?” It’s easily one of the most quoted lines in cinema history. However, the one line that never gets quoted is the last one in the film: “Well, I’m the only one here.” It’s the truest one in the film. Travis Bickle exists to make some kind of connection somehow, to mimic or share in the effortless social interactions he witnesses but does not participate in.
The film plays out as a series of failed attempts to connect, every single one of them hopelessly wrong. He asks a girl out on a date and takes her to a porno theater. He sucks up to a political candidate, only to end up disturbing him. He tries to make small talk with a Secret Service agent. He tries to befriend a child prostitute but only scares her away. When he asks “Who you talkin’ to?” he is addressing himself in a mirror, because he’s so lonely.
This utter aloneness is the core of Taxi Driver. Perhaps that is why so many connect to this film and to Travis Bickle, even though he would seem to be the most alienating of movie heroes. We all have felt that same level of loneliness that Travis feels. Most of us are just better at concealing it.
It’s widely known that Paul Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi Driver was inspired by John Ford’s 1956 film, The Searchers. In both films, the heroes become obsessed with “rescuing” women who may not want or need rescuing. Both Travis Bickle and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards are like Boy Scouts that help an old lady cross the street whether she wants to go or not.
In The Searchers, John Wayne’s Civil War veteran searches for his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped by Comanches. The mere thought of Debbie in the arms of a Native American vexes him. When he finally locates her, she tells him the Comanches are her people now, and she flees. Wayne resolves to kill the girl for the crime of becoming a “squaw.” In the end, however, he lifts her up and says, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” The dynamic here is that Wayne has forgiven his niece, after participating in the killing of the people who had been her family for the past decade or so. As the film comes to an end, Debbie is reunited with her biological family, and we see Wayne silhouetted in the doorway. Significantly, Ford does not show us how Debbie feels about these events.
In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle is also a war veteran, horribly scarred by his service in Vietnam. He meets a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), controlled by a pimp named Sport (Harvey Keitel). Travis resolves to “rescue” Iris, descending on her dwelling in a bloodbath unrivaled even in Scorsese’s filmography. A letter from Iris’ parents and newspaper clippings hail Travis as a hero. And yet, a crucial earlier scene suggest that Iris was content with Sport, and the reasons why she fled her home are unexplored.
The hidden message of both films is that a man alienated from society, unable to connect with people or form normal relationships, becomes a loner or wanderer. He assigns himself to rescue a young girl from a life that is an affront to his sensibilities. Unlike The Searchers, this narrative is surrounded by smaller ones in Taxi Driver, all of them building to the same theme. The story takes place during an election, and Travis finds himself with the candidate, Palatine, in his cab on two occasions. He goes through the motions of ingratiating flattery, but we, and Palatine, sense that something is off.
Following his first run-in with Palatine, Travis tries to “free” Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), one of Palatine’s campaign workers. That goes horribly wrong, as he takes her to the aforementioned porno theater for their date. After the fearsome scene with the mirror, Travis becomes a walking arsenal and goes to assassinate Palatine. The scenes with Palatine are like dress rehearsals for the film’s finale. With both Betsy and Iris, he has a friendly conversation at a cafe or coffee shop, followed by an ill-fated “date,” soon followed by attacks on the men he perceives as controlling them. He attempts to assassinate Palatine, fails, and then goes gunning for Sport.
The truthfulness of the ending is suspect, as we see newspaper clippings regarding Travis’ “heroism.” Betsy gets into his cab and seems to treat him with admiration as opposed to her earlier disgust and vitriol. Is this scene a fantasy? Did Travis survive the shoot-out? Are these his dying thoughts?
The answers to these questions are nebulous if they exist at all. The end sequence plays out more like music than drama; it completes the narrative on an emotional, not literal, level. We end not on the carnage of the shootout, but the redemption of the fallout. Redemption, more often than not, is the end goal for so many of Scorsese’s characters. They live in sin and despise themselves, but they desire admiration and forgiveness. Whether or not Travis gains this is irrelevant; his mental state has shaped reality throughout the film, and, in some way, has brought him a form of peace.