Taxi Driver is one of those movies that everybody told me to see, and I kept being like “yeah I’ll see it!” and “it’s on the list” and so on. Well I have finally seen it and there is a good reason why everybody tells everybody else to see it. Not only is it a really engrossing and well-made film, but it also connected really well with me (maybe it wouldn’t with everybody, but I think there’s enough in it that would connect with most people).
Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is kind of a strange guy. He can’t sleep for some unspecified reason, so he takes a job as a taxi driver so he has something to do. Whether that was the wisest choice given what he goes through on the job remains to be seen. He drives around all of the bad parts of New York, picking up all the crazy people who do God knows what in the back of his cab. He feels that the whole world has just gone to pieces and these people are just another example of it. He just wants to get rid of them, but keeps driving them around instead. This only increases his frustration at the world.
Coming into contact with people is not the worst part of Travis’s life though, it’s the lack of contact that truly wounds him. He tries to go out with this girl Betsy (Cybill Shepard), but is so socially awkward that he can’t get very far. At first he kind of creeps her out because he sits outside in his cab and just stares at the campaign headquarters where she works, but once he actually talks to her he doesn’t seem so bad. He acts like he wants to volunteer, but after awhile he gives up on that which was probably the right call. He clearly doesn’t know anything about the candidate at all and just wants to talk to her. He then throws caution to the winds and just says how he feels: that they are both empty people who might be able to find something in each other. It’s one of those times where you don’t know whether you want to give Travis a hug or run away in the opposite direction as fast as you can, which to be honest is a lot of the film, but Betsy decides to get some coffee with him. Even though I could tell this wasn’t going to last long, I was still happy for Travis.
And last long it most certainly does not. The next time they meet he takes her out to a porno which clearly does not go over well. This is just what he does with his time though, when he’s alone. He doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. In a weird way he’s just trying to show her how empty his life is, but she’s thinking it’s an insult to her so she leaves. I mean, you can’t really blame her; I’m surprised she stuck it out as long as she did. Nevertheless, I still felt bad for everybody involved. It only gets worse later because this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back so to speak. The rest of the film goes on and all I could think was what if it had worked out between them, would Travis have been better off? But that’s not the story here, and maybe he wouldn’t have been better off anyway.
He tries to call Betsy a couple times, but she ignores him and eventually he gives up. She’s “just like the rest of them,” meaning the society that continually rejects him at every turn. He plunges into a weird self improvement project, which is good… somewhat. One of the many weird things about this movie is that it had me seeing everything with Travis’s well-being in mind. It became kind of self-centered, except that Travis was the self in the movie that I was centering everything around. He starts working out and arms himself with loads of guns, thinking he’s undertaking a “mission for the government.” He’s really going to avenge himself on Betsy by assassinating the man who has her when he cannot, the candidate she works for, Charles Palantine. He’s not sleeping with her or anything, I just think that’s how Travis is seeing it. It’s not for political reasons because he really has no concept of them anyway, and he keeps telling everybody to vote for him. So the reason I almost started to say that this was good because it kind of seems good for him, you know, like he’s focusing his energy on something instead of just aimlessly internally at nothing in particular. Of course, killing people is not acceptable and I don’t think it is, but movies manage to mess with my morals sometimes and this one most definitely did.
His mission fails, but he needs some sort of outlet and there are plenty of losers to kill around New York so it doesn’t take him long to find some. He finds another, and to be honest, more worthy, cause in Iris (Jodie Foster), a twelve year old prostitute. He makes a connection with her just based on the fact that they are both complete losers with empty lives. When Iris can’t leave her pimp (Sport, played by Harvey Keitel) on her own, Travis kills him and several other guys that seem to be working with him in a very violent and brutal way. He almost kills himself too, but runs out of bullets. The violence here is very clear, and very bloody, but that’s not the thing that hurts. I was so conflicted at this point because I didn’t know what was going to happen to Travis, and I don’t mean if he was going to die or not, just if he was going to be okay. If this was how he was going to find meaning and purpose in his life, I wanted it at least to work, you know? Though objectively he shouldn’t have killed those guys, they were pretty horrible and Scorsese lets us know that with a truly frightening scene between Sport and Iris. That was the worst part in the whole film for me to be honest; he’s trying to convince her that he’s in love with her but any thinking observer can tell that he just wants to make money off of her. If Travis has to go on a killing rampage to find meaning in his life, as horrible as that sounds, it’s better than what Sport was doing to Iris just because that’s how he is. He seemed totally fine with himself.
There’s this part towards the beginning that I think sums up Travis pretty well. He’s eating with the other drivers and he’s taking alka-seltzer or something, he drops the tablet into the water and it bubbles up and Scorsese stays on it for a while, just buzzing and bubbling. To me, that showed Travis’s state of mind pretty clearly. Here’s a guy who just can’t stand the state of his life and his frustration with the world is just building and building up under the surface. It can’t stay under the surface for too long; at some point it’s going to bubble over and Travis certainly does. I wonder if his violence was just a temporary release of energy and now that he’s got it out of his system he’ll be fine, but I don’t know. There’s always some risk of things upsetting him and him just going off and shooting people whenever he feels like it. The film sort of portrayed it as an isolated incident, but it’s really hard to say for sure if that’s what it really was. Those of you who’ve seen it and know about the ending will better understand why I say that, but I don’t want to give anything away about the ending because it’s very surreal the first time you see it.
It was also very surprising how many small instances of humor there were in the film. I did not expect to laugh, at all. I actually expected to be really depressed, but somehow I wasn’t. The film’s ending may have lured me into a false sense of security though, that’s entirely possible. Some of the interactions between Sport and Travis are actually kind of funny, in particular I’m thinking of this one line when Travis asks him “how’s everything in the pimp business?” A lot of the stuff that Travis says is just funny like that, you can’t really believe he said that so you laugh partly because it’s actually funny and partly because it’s so awkward you can’t really do anything else with it.
Taxi Driver did weird stuff to me, I’ll admit it. It was a lot like Psycho in that I completely sympathized with someone who was committing murder. I imagine that it’s a lot like how parents feel about their kids, but obviously not to the same degree, how they will still love them and want what’s best for them even if they do crazy, messed up, and borderline evil stuff. Next time around I will definitely pay more attention to Scorsese’s direction which I marveled at in spots but I’m sure I missed most of it. I liked how he shot the aftermath of the attack from above though, everybody was frozen and it was like he was forcing us to judge Travis and the situation he had gotten himself into. It’s a great movie that really makes you think, as well as giving you one of the greatest characters you will ever encounter in your movie-viewing career.
“Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars