– By Sam Hendrian –
This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback Series
“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to ME?”
These words have been parodied so many times in films over the years that it is easy to forget where they originated from: Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Controversial for its graphically violent climax and morally ambiguous ending, critics have nevertheless declared it as one of Hollywood’s greatest films, and it was recently mentioned as one of the primary influences for the upcoming DC Comics origin story film Joker. A fascinating meditation on madness and the dangerous destinations that a misguided sense of purpose can lead to, Taxi Driver is a timelessly thought-provoking motion picture experience.
When aptly paired with music, opening credits sequences are perfect opportunities to set the tone of the movie to follow. Taxi Driver’s opening credits are superbly haunting and tone-setting, largely because of composer Bernard Herrmann’s jazzily melancholic main theme.
As the names of the actors and filmmakers flash across the screen, we see a cab drive through a cloud of exhaust, followed by an extreme closeup of the protagonist Travis Bickle’s hollow eyes. Contrary to what it may sound like, the term “hollow” paradoxically implies a wide range of tortured emotions, emotions that merge together into one confused whole.
The first we see of Travis Bickle’s entire body is in the next scene, during which he applies for a job as a taxi driver as a potential solution for insomnia. An honorably-discharged Vietnam veteran, he clearly has a troubled past, and his short-answered, unfocused interaction with the personnel officer implies that he is rather simple-minded. Nevertheless, he successfully acquires the job, and he promptly goes out into the seedy nighttime streets of New York City.
While not appearing to adhere to any particular religion or ethical code, Travis is clearly disillusioned by the spiritual emptiness he witnesses while driving his cab throughout the city. Pimps and prostitutes abound, the former often being quite abusive. The faces of politicians plaster every other building with empty promises. Pornography theaters are rampant, which Travis himself frequents, although his simple-mindedness and rather flat worldview numb him to the clear connection these theaters have to the prostitution business he subtly abhors. In short, sunny optimism is not a privilege Travis and his fellow city dwellers can afford without lying to themselves.
In addition to being deeply disillusioned by all the emptiness he sees, Travis is also suffering from incredible loneliness, infamously describing himself once as “God’s lonely man.” When he spots a gorgeous political campaign worker named Betsy, he becomes possessed by sexual longing and uses his unique charms to score a date with her, but he blows any chances of a blossoming romance after taking her to a pornographic movie, quite unaware that something like this would greatly offend her.
Betsy’s understandable anger and prompt rejection after this horrible date sharpens the loneliness in Travis’s soul and accelerates his so-far steady descent into madness, but beyond that, he is also tortured by a restless desire for some sense of purpose in life. At one point in the film, he says:
“All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don’t believe that someone should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person like other people.”
There is certainly a paradoxical perplexity about a statement like, “I believe that someone should become a person,” and yet it ultimately makes a lot of sense after considering the simple, loneliness-tainted way Travis views the world. He is a someone who wants to be a somebody. A someone blends into the dark background of obscurity, but a somebody stands out, for better or for worse. In his desperation to escape the pit of obscurity and vent his rising anger at society, Travis’s now rapidly-twisting mind begins to see violence in the name of combating societal corruption as his only viable purpose in life.
Of all the corruption in New York City, Travis is most upset by prostitution, and after befriending an underaged and terribly-treated prostitute named Iris, he decides that he can fulfill his purpose in life by “saving” her through an act of murder/suicide. Mailing her a letter stuffed with cash so that she can leave New York City and go back to her parents, Travis goes to the apartment where she takes clients and proceeds to kill her pimp, her mafioso customer, and the landlord. He then prepares to kill himself but is out of bullets, reluctantly surrendering to the police officers who have arrived on the scene.
In a controversial twist ending, we learn that Travis does not go to prison for the murders; in fact, he is painted as a hero by the media. The men he killed happened to be armed, making it look like he was simply saving a young girl from murderous gangsters. He even receives a thank-you note from Iris’s parents, who say that their daughter has returned home and is back in school. And if that was not already too good to be true for him, he restarts his job as a taxi driver and happens to give a ride to Betsy, who now seems like she may give him a second chance.
So what can be said of a movie that gives a happy ending to a homicidal, clearly mentally-unstable man? Are director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader implying that Travis Bickle is justified in doing what he did? Not at all. Rather, Scorsese and Schrader are merely snapping a picture of what society is frequently known for doing: misunderstanding and misrepresenting the truth. Travis Bickle is likely still dangerous to himself and to others, and as he drives away from Betsy in the closing scene of the movie, we see that his eyes are filled with the same confusion and misguided embitterment that they were at the beginning.
Though he may consider himself “God’s lonely man,” Travis Bickle is certainly not alone in his mental/emotional struggles. It is a natural human desire to be loved and to be empowered by a sense of meaningful purpose; unfortunately, Travis does not receive any real guidance as to where this love and purpose can be found, leaving him to suffocate in the pit of his own impending madness. Perhaps it is best then to view Taxi Driver as a cautionary tale, not only for people like Travis, but for all of us who have been tasked with loving and listening to the human beings Life has placed in our midst.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.
For more articles by Sam, click here.