Scorsese’s Taxi Driver: The Antihero for All Time

For decades, American auteur Martin Scorsese has helped to redefine cinematic language, depicting angst, violence, and loneliness not only to identify himself as a major voice of New York’s streets, but of America’s entire post-1960s generation. Although by the mid-1970s, Scorsese had a few critically acclaimed independent films under his belt, it was his tour-de-force cinematic imagining of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s quintessential American antihero, Travis Bickle, in 1976’s Taxi Driver, that helped define that decade’s cinema. With new films drawing comparisons to Scorsese’s long, dark night of the American soul—particularly Todd Phillip’s 2019 Joker—modern commentators and YouTubers have taken online to reassess the lasting impact of Taxi Driver and reconsider its unique antihero’s appeal. As many have noted, it the film’s effectiveness can be broken down to two major components—the acting abilities of the principal players, particularly a young Robert DeNiro, and Scorsese’s own mastery of film language in immersing the viewing into the lead character’s dark netherworld. As YouTuber Jack’s Movie Reviews described:

Structurally, Taxi Driver is a very unique film. There is no connective thread that runs throughout the entire movie, connecting the beginning and end. Instead, much as Travis drifts around, picking up new hobbies, the film follows that, picking up new objects and story beats … Because of that, in many ways, it’s less about the story and more about the experience of watching and observing Travis … The film also places the audience in Travis’ shoes.

This observation was echoed by Justin at WhatCulture, who emphasized Martin Scorsese’s use of New York City in the crime-ridden 1970s to symbolize the larger zeitgeist of the post-Vietnam generation, and the lack of authoritarian trust that mirrored many of the fatalistic philosophies of the Old West. He added:

First and foremost, Bickle is a veteran of the Vietnam War—a trauma the American public was decades away from reconciling with—and ends up as a cabbie in New York City. Perception at the time saw the U.S. as a nation in decline with crisis after crisis typifying the meilleur and New York, to many, was at its center … [Travis is] paranoia trauma given a body, therefore, it wouldn’t make sense thematically to give him a happy ending.

In his reassessment of the film, Jack’s Movie Reviews agreed that Travis Bickle’s status as a Vietnam veteran is crucial in shaping his troubled viewpoints on the America in which he lives; as a victim of Post-traumatic stress disorder—as well as a psyche desensitized to violence—Bickle is presented as “the everyman,” yet is a very distinct film character, as dictated by Scorsese and screenwriter Schrader. He continued:

The film tries to make Travis’ worldview very clear. It doesn’t want you to agree with it, necessarily, but it does want you to understand it … He still thinks of himself as an Honorable Discharge, but his life has devolved into something very different, something that he might even hate—but he doesn’t see it that way. He still sees himself in a very noble light.

Fellow YouTuber Thomas Pollack concurred with this observation, adding that the seemingly plotless storyline of Taxi Driver is deliberately deceiving in seducing the viewer into understanding Travis’ state of mind. He noted:

From start to finish, there’s a stream of consciousness flow to the film and upon a first viewing, you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. There’s no initial plot [and] our story is narrated by our protagonist, Travis Bickle—a somewhat unreliable source of truth in the narrative.

At this, WhatCulture argues that it is Travis’ angst that creates a more universal stand-in for the audience, as while each person has their own personal history and background, the end result of previous experiences can still amount to a jaded disillusionment on par with Travis—especially complex dual yearnings to be both socially invisible, yet acknowledged by the society around him. The YouTuber noted:

What [Travis] is screaming out for is to matter, to be remembered … The real issue with Travis, amongst many, is that he’s so lost in the vacuum of the changing landscape that he doesn’t understand why he’s so angry.

At More Than Meets the Lens, the commentator made references to one of director Martin Scorsese’s own previous comments to his original intentions for the atmosphere of Taxi Driver, and how the dreamlike presentation of New York was meant to disorient the viewer into further relating to Travis’ mental deterioration. He noted:

Director Martin Scorsese has explained that the idea for the film arose from his feeling that movies often behave as dreams, or drug-induced reveries, and that the hypnotic sensibilities of the film operate as an attempt to incubate the viewer with the feeling of being in a limbo state between sleeping and waking.

The YouTuber expanded on that theory, adding that the lead protagonist’s inner struggles are more powerful as a storytelling device by not being specifically indicated, as the viewer must observe many scenes of silent behavior in order to understand Travis’ aimless frustrations. He added:

[Travis’] worldview isn’t intellectual, but rather shallow and conceited. Travis struggles with existential grief but isn’t smart enough to recognize the source of these issues. His biggest problem is he can’t understand the source of his turmoil—and this causes him to project his anguish externally though strokes of brutal violence.

YouTuber Thomas Pollack built off of this observation regarding New York City’s visual representation, noting that even Scorsese’s use of cinematography makes the metropolis seem dystopian and hellish in its attempts at gritty realism. The YouTuber claimed:

Taxi Driver is truly a film about the city and the way Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman visually portrayed it, brings us into this environment. With car fumes, neon lights, trash, prostitutes, thugs on the streets, you can almost smell feel the grit.

Thomas Pollack added that this is coupled with important visual cues regarding Travis’ behavior around other characters, insisting that the viewer recognizes Travis’ sense of loneliness while even surrounded by an entire city of other people. The YouTuber added:

Travis prefers taking long shifts, particularly at night. While this shows he wants to be alone, it says the opposite—we must remember that being a taxi driver involves talking to a lot of people. This could be an attempt by him to socialize … He’s trying to fill something because he’s so alone.

Although Taxi Driver is devoid of a traditional narrative thread, its episodic construction nevertheless follows a trajectory of Travis’ decent into madness and violence. First expressed through Robert DeNiro’s physical uneasiness with social interaction, director Scorsese displays two consecutive relationships with two very different female characters to demonstrate his brutal evolution: first, with a well-to-do political volunteer, Betsy, who rejects him, and secondly with Iris, an underage prostitute he views as needing a savior figure.

On this theme, Jack’s Movie Reviews noted:

What appears to at first pull him off of this path is the introduction of Betsy—someone who has her life in order, she works a job and is passionate about electing [political candidate] Palantine, has friends, and likes to joke around … She is quite possibly the last person in this entire city who needs saving, yet [Travis] makes it his mission to do just that.

The YouTuber further noted that these two consecutive episodes within Taxi Driver was important in demonstrating the slow disintegration of Travis’ feelings of self-worth and yearning for a sense of meaning—at least as far as representing a socially-accepting masculine figure, or a hero with a wroth journey of merit. He added:

Down a very dark path does he go. He arms himself, ready for whatever his deranged mind cooks up. During this entire process, he views it as self-improvement; he thinks of this as good for him, meanwhile, he continues to live in his vices … he still lives life very similar to the one that he did earlier, [but] the big difference is that he has become completely unhinged.

At More Than Meets the Lens, the YouTuber commented that this very pursuit on Travis’ part—his yearning for a worthy goal or journey—is what directly shapes his views of women into larger symbols in his own reality. As Travis sees himself as a hero, and truly believes his actions to contain merit, to he was replaced his sanity with a narrative he can control. The commentator offered:

What’s fascinating about the final act of the film is Travis’ immortalization; he becomes an accidental hero, and it’s no secret he’s monstrous as are his intentions. In Betsy’s world, Travis is a vigilante eager to advance the decay of society; in Iris’, he’s a cowboy, a Lone Ranger, ready to rescue a captive. In this regard, Travis is mistaken by the public as a hero … Ironically, the film fulfills Travis’ self-declared destiny.

Jack’s Movie Reviews agreed with this observation, adding:

The film never paints Travis as a bad person. He certainly does bad things later on in the film … yest, we don’t hate him because of it. In fact, we feel sorry for him; we know that with his history in the war, he’s dealing with mental health issues, and he’s just trying to exist, but does not know how to do that.

In the end, director Scorsese opts to leave Travis’ story with an ambiguous ending, as an act of extreme violence has both made the protagonist an accidental hero, and reinstated his sense of self-worth within the very society he both despises and wishes to save. But, according to Justin at WhatCulture, this is important in allowing the viewer to question the nature of anger itself, and its place in guiding our cultural heroes. He added:

Anger is unpredictable and even sections of the film that seem a dead certainty are treated with ambiguity, especially the ending. If you are to read the ending directly from Paul Schrader’s script, it implies that Bickle is a clear hero: having survived his conflict in the brothel and praised for his actions, we see the newspapers celebrating him and his relationship with Betsy rekindled. It’s a massive juxtaposition we just witnessed, and it’s easy to see why many people believe Travis to have died in these film moments and the ending sequenced to be little more than a wish-fulfillment dream as he bleeds out.