By Afra Nariman
Taxi Driver (1976)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Martin Scorsese
A loner suffering from insomnia, named Travis (played by Robert De Niro), becomes a cab driver to fill the time of his sleepless nights. As he observes New York City each night, he witnesses and dreams of cleaning the city’s filthiness and criminal presence. After falling for a pretty campaign woman named Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd), he begins to obsess over saving the world, by doing his part in saving his city, the world he has observed and come to loathe. First he attempts to assassinate a presidential candidate, but soon focuses his energy on saving as 12 year old prostitute named Iris (played by Jodie Foster), and help her get back on the right path.
Many of us look at parts of the world, or perhaps our city or community, and we notice the corruption and “filth” in society. We always want to do something to make a change, but we realize how powerless we are when we are alone in our mission. Politicians often times ignore the real roots of the problems, and when they don’t ignore them, they take too long in trying to solve them. The greatest character study in cinematic history, Taxi Driver follows Travis, an anti-social, yet confident loner who suffers from insomnia and develops a hero-complex as he observes the corruption that has overtaken the streets of his city, New York City. With De Niro’s Travis narrating the story from time to time, through his frequent journal entries, we are given an intricate path into the instability of his mind. The path that this film takes, in regards to the progression of the story in congruence with Travis’ character’s evolution, can be outlined through his many entries, which are spoken aloud, and are often times as blunt and gruesome as many parts of the visual story itself.
Within the first ten minutes, we get a sense of his dilemma, when he says:
This quote cements his struggle with insomnia, his existential problem of feeling alone and lost, as well as revealing his wish to connect with others — to be “a person like other people.” The entire film, he is searching for an identity — for someplace to go. He would eventually decide his own identity and carve out his goal, by taking it upon himself to save the city, in his own way.
Travis continually uses the word “scum” to refer to the members of the city who he detests and views as a corrupt stain on NYC. In one of his early entries, we hear:
“…Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”
This is the first, but far from the last time we hear him use the word scum. As a cab driver who suffers from insomnia, he spends his nights roaming the streets, observing the criminally infused reality of New York City in the 70’s. He’s not the most morally high person himself, but he’s very sure of himself and his views. His morally suspect character, yet insistence on “cleaning up this city,” is what makes this film, as a character study, so interesting — and his heroic actions so effective in closing out the story’s gradual progression. Relating Travis to her favorite song, his love interest, Betsy, calls him a “walking contradiction,” which as the story goes on, proves to be more and more accurate. He wants to do the right thing, to save the city (and the world); but his tactics and plan to achieve that goal is controversial and violent.
During the day, he pursues Betsy, who is a beautiful woman working on the campaign for Senator Palantine’s presidential run for office. In one of his journal entries, we get an elegant description of the day he first spots her;
“I first saw her at Palantine Campaign headquarters at 63rd and Broadway. She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. They… cannot… touch… her.”
It feels as if she is his salvation; in a world that disgusts him, she is the lone, shining light. He tries his hardest to connect with her, to embrace who he views as the only good person left, but fails to do so after he chooses to take her to a porno on a date. Like everyone who he fails to connect with, which is everyone, he turns his back on her. He says to her:
“Let me tell you something. You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna die in a hell, just like the rest of ’em!”
This constant theme of his inability to connect to those around him, causing him to detest everyone around him, is one of the motivating factors in almost everything he does. On one fateful night, Senator Palantine happens to enter his cab as a passenger. Having just met Betsy, Travis seems eager to commend the presidential candidate and to converse with him. He does so, but ends his conversation with him by subtly making the Senator a bit uneasy with his last remarks — and later plans to assassinate him. He does get the chance to express his deep-rooted disgust of the city and the streets though. The following is a part of their exchange in Travis’ cab.
“I have learned more about America from riding in taxi cabs than in all the limos in the country…Can I ask you something, Travis?Palantine
What is the one thing about this country that bugs you the most?”Palantine
Travis admits he is not so qualified to speak politics, but he does know one thing:
“Well… Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It’s full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. Whatever-whoever becomes the President should just really clean it up. You know what I mean?… I think that the President should just clean up this whole mess here. You should just flush it right down the fuckin’ toilet.”Travis
At the end of the day, Travis ultimately takes things into his own hands. After failing in his original plan of attempting to assassinate Palantine, signifying his distrust of politicians, he focuses his energy in saving the life of a 12 year old prostitute, and in a violent ending, he does so; becoming the “hero” who at least saved somebody, even if not the entire city.
Over the course of his sleepless nights roaming the city, Travis witnesses the terrible activities that plaque the streets, and that give him such a negative view of them. Neighborhood kids throw trash at his cab, an unhinged and jealous passenger of his (played by Mr. Scorsese himself) confesses that he plans on committing murder, Travis deals with a gun salesman who also offers him drugs and stolen cars, he witnesses an attempted robbery at gun point, and of course, the dynamic between Sport, the pimp, and Iris, the 12 year old prostitute who he saves. Of Sport, he channels his energy towards him in particular, when he says of him:
“Somebody’s gotta do something. He’s the scum of the world!”
All of these experiences slowly build up for Travis, causing him to lose hope in anybody doing anything, and ultimately leading to his decision to step up and take action himself — almost like a vigilante.
As much as Travis’ story in this film offers a version of social commentary on the criminally infested streets of 1970’s New York City; it is also a deep character study of the gradually unraveling mind of a distrustful loner who feels as if he is the only person in the world aware of the problems that need to be solved. As much as he wishes to be like everybody else, and live a purposeful life, he comes to the conclusion that he is all alone in the world. This “world’s lonely hero” complex is vividly noticeable in one of the film’s coolest moments, where Travis write into his journal:
His loner-persona is also evident in one of the most iconic scenes that cinema has ever given us. Staring in the mirror, gun in hand, Travis speaks to himself:
Before deciding to take matters into his own hands and saving the parts of the world that he could, he seeks advice from a colleague of his, a veteran cabbie who says to him:
Although Wizard, the veteran cabbie offers him a scrambled combination of sentences that barely translate to, at best, ambiguous and confusing advice; Travis takes the man’s words to heart: You do a thing and that’s what you are. He decides to step up and in his eyes, save the world and the city, which would make him, by Wizard’s logic, a hero. He feels that he has finally found that purpose, that sense of direction that he was after.
I know I included a lot of quotes in this review, but to be fair, it is one of the most quotable films that we have out there. Travis’ numerous journal entries, together, provide a very formative study and understanding of the film’s various angles as both a type of social commentary on criminal infestation, and a character study of a lonely insomniac who develops a hero complex to go along with his diminished hope for society, as he chooses to take matters into his own hands. Although I provided segments of a ton of his entries, it is only a fraction of the brilliant and quotable moments in this film.
With a violent, yet satisfying finish, Taxi Driver will stick with you. At times it’s controversial, it’s bold, violent and gruesome; but it’s also intricate and insightful, giving you a ton to think about as you watch an utterly cool film. Robert De Niro is beyond legendary as Travis. To me, this is Martin Scorsese’s greatest film, although Raging Bull and Goodfellas are right behind it. Taxi Driver is a truly unique film that is unparalleled in its elegant balance between being a character study, a socially vibrant take on NYC’s criminally infused streets of the time, and being simply, yet extremely, entertaining and cool.