Broken, alone, and repulsed by the “scum” of New York, an insomniac taxi driver takes it upon himself to act out his fantasy and purge the streets. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver twists New York into the projection of one man’s fears. It remains one of cinema’s most intriguing character studies on alienation, self-destruction, and voyeurism.
But it’s voyeurism building to action. The transformation and reparation of Travis Bickle are born out of an intense need to feel belonging. His loneliness is salient to his torment, but he pushes people away to maintain it.
Travis’ belief he is worthless bubbles under the surface of his courtship with Betsy, a campaign worker for Senator Palentine. Her rejection of Travis’ world dismisses her as “cold and distant, just like everyone else”. When he’s spurned, his intention to assassinate Palantine is as much a redemptive suicide mission as a swipe at Betsy. He wants to be caught; blunting his plan being deliberately suspicious to the secret service.
Rescuing underage prostitute Iris then becomes the embodiment of Travis’ battle with the city. The shootout scene is surreal, a release of all the pressure that’s been building inside. A suicide mission ending in Travis’ unlikely survival leaves him with the achievement of some acceptance. The papers see him as a hero – a timely stab at celebrity culture. He’s only a hero because he’s famous.
As the scene of Travis’ descent into madness, New York is photographed in such raw seediness, remaining atmospheric day and night. The cab moving through the night is often dreamlike, tapping into Bickle’s mind, he can’t make sense of it. Composer Bernard Herrmann (known for Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Psycho) delivers a haunting accompaniment to the layers of New York and the documentary playing out inside Travis’ head.
The famous “you talkin’ to me?” scene is unconventional from a cinematography point of view. It’s repetitive, fractured, as Travis becomes a child playing with a toy gun. The mirror motif is recurrent notably with Travis in his cab – his screen into people and a world he will never understand.
Taxi Driver firmly established Scorsese as a rising auteur. Fresh from Mean Streets (1973) and the portrayal of New York as a community, Taxi Driver’s release coincided with a time post-Vietnam Americans were questioning their values, and many soldiers were returning home with a sense of alienation. Travis Bickle’s ‘Nam experiences are never alluded to, but would in some way validate his disconnectedness and a need for atonement.
There are recognisable qualities drawn from many genres. It’s a city-wide crime story set inside one man’s mind; a modern interpretation of horror close to Hitchcock’s Psycho; a western with Travis as the roaming lone gunman; a film noir amidst the moody motifs and descent into darkness. Travis Bickle’s deterioration remains a timeless story of a man searching for identity in a culture of violence, detachment, and obsessive desire to break free from repression.