2016 marked the 40th Anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s neo-noir film about Travis Bickle’s gradual descent into madness, played by Robert DeNiro. The violence, language and subject matter are unique and shocking even by contemporary standards. Despite this, the film has stood the test of time, and remains an essential classic to cinephiles and general audiences alike. The realism in Travis’ loneliness and search for purpose permeate similar feelings to viewers. This subject, identity in this frame, and the madness of trying to understand everyday life are all questioned by the film.
The film received critical and commercial acclaim for the bright lights contrasting the grittiness of New York’s underbelly, memorable dialogue and depicting Travis’ behavioral downward spiral, While the film is often cited as a neo-noir, Scorsese and scriptwriter Paul Schrader produced an almost avant-garde experience to viewers. The plot is not succinct, Travis is not likable, and nothing is sugarcoated. The rigors of working overnight, the endless coffee and pills, and futile search for purpose gives the viewer Travis’ train of thought and a sense of comradery in his descent.
Clichés and the glamor of New York City are distorted. Hookers, dealers, and troublesome youth litter the streets. Travis only sees this reality to the city and believes the “filth” has to be washed away. He creates his own destructive purpose, and the violent undertones are made clearer as he continues to work night shifts. Every passenger offers glimpses to Travis’ view of the city. This gradually builds upon his latter “crusade” against the filth later in the film. To Travis, this film setting is ironic. His exploration and gradual physiological decline all happen in New York City, where he is lonely in an urban, busy environment. He is often alone in his apartment and on his routes. Several shots depict the busy city streets, yet we see Travis walking on his own with no clear destination in mind during the day.
Scorsese’s use of social norms and having them interact with Travis makes him that much more eerie and shocking. The acceptable societal norms are presented through the character of Betsy (Cybill Shepard). While becoming interested in Travis’ unique opinions and honest attitude, she quickly scolds him over choosing a pornographic film for their date. This elucidates Travis’ lack of social skills and detachment from reality. She represents the acclaim and cliché praise of New York City. She is beautiful, educated, and has a career that supposedly serves a higher cause. She works for Senator Palintine (Leonard Harris), who is seeking a presidential candidate nomination. His campaign slogan, “We Are the people” even contrasts Travis. His parked taxi during the day outside the campaign office represents the normal working class while Travis, a moonlighter, and graveyard shift worker, is excluded and different from their world.
Betsy ignoring Travis’ further advances and phone calls represent his complete detachment from reality. After this period, his crusade to save Iris (Jodie Foster), the young prostitute, from her pimp named Sport (Harvey Keitel) becomes his obsession. Travis believes he has found his purpose when he attempts to convince her to leave Sport. The disgust and hate for the filth of the city are all personified in Sport’s character. To Travis, saving Iris and killing Sport will make the world a better place. The culmination of his madness and violent nature are on full display in the film’s climatic shootout. A heartfelt letter from Iris’ parents thanking Travis are plastered on his wall and read out to the audience. With Iris safe, and Travis back to his normal overnight routes, he drives Betsy home while conversing about recently making newspaper headlines. Travis appears to have been cured and has become accustomed to societal norms, but his firm glimpse into the back view mirror of the Taxi proves his madness never left. The audience did not experience his descent and eventual return to reality, but rather an episode into his madness. Betsy’s return once again lets the viewers see reality fleeting Travis.
Taxi Driver will continue to be a hallmark to near-perfect filmmaking. Travis is fleshed out enough for the audience to feel his emotions and descent into madness. Scorsese and Schrader created a masterpiece that has become a classic tale of loneliness and the unhinging power of the human psyche. Travis creates his own reality that attempts to fit into what society views as acceptable, but this experience fuels his madness. The backdrop of this psychological episode is created by the clever camera angles and long takes of city streets that offer a grim, realistic setting of Travis’ New York. 40 years after its release, Taxi Driver will remain a shocking tale of loneliness and mental health, with relatable qualities of purpose that will continue to attract new and old film goers alike.
This article was written by Daniel Centeno, a writer for dusk magazine.