Taxi Driver is one of my favorite movies and essential viewing for everybody, especially with all the pseudo-Travis’ out there committing many of these mass shootings today. Taxi Driver is primarily a character study of Travis Bickle, a loner war veteran turned cabbie because he “cant sleep nights.” Every scene but one controversial exception is presented from his POV, we begin the movie by staring directly into his eyes and end with him looking at his own reflection in the rear view mirror. I propose that the events depicted between the two are colored by his own biases and warped persecution complex. Travis is an unreliable narrator, and one of the only examples I’m aware of in the medium of film.
Travis provides sporadically placed commentary in the form of diary entries as the events around him unfold, giving insight into his actions and communicating that he has nobody to speak to except himself. As the audience, we follow him about his monotonous routine of driving people around as a series of subplots and side characters come in and out of the narrative. Before long, it becomes apparent to the viewer that Taxi Driver is about Travis failure to connect with people on a meaningful level as well as his various reactions to this mounting loneliness and frustration.
There’s some interesting motifs throughout the story, which serve as visual cues to how Travis sees the world. Most obviously, there are at least a dozen instances of black people being portrayed as violent or otherwise uncivilized. A few examples are when Travis’ cab gets attacked by a street gang, a prostitute and some teens fight each other, a man robs a convenience store, and another man angrily shouts he’s gonna kill somebody—all of them are black. I interpret this as an inner bigotry and unwarranted superiority from Travis directed towards those around him. I do not think it’s that he’s racist necessarily, so much as the fact that a “me versus them” mentality is easier to convey with color-coded imagery. There are instances of white people behaving amorally as well, and Travis does not seem to discriminate in his angry rants about “the animals” and “dying in hell” among racial lines.
In addition, police are repeatedly shown bungling their duties, coinciding with Travis’ rant to Iris about how “cops don’t do nothing!” The cop Tom calls over to scare off Travis approaches the scene very slowly, allowing Travis to get away. The secret service agents fail to get Travis’ picture or catch him in the act of assassination. At the end, the cops arrive at the brothel only when it is too late to stop the carnage, not to mention they never stopped the prostitution ring beforehand.
Another motif I found is the parallel to Palantine’s hallow political statements and Travis’ grand but vague declarations of the world in his narration. It’s as if, for all the unlikable qualities Travis possesses, those at the top who have the respect and love he wants, are in their own way just as self-centered and clueless. Travis often says “I don’t know a lot about _____” when talking to other people, because he is so absorbed in his own world and persecution narrative. This is similar to how Palantine talks only about himself and vacuous political jargon like “We the People” that doesn’t mean anything.
Finally, Travis repeatedly tries and fails to talk to people. His conversations with the recruiter, porno cashier, Betsy, Secret Serviceman, Palantine, Wizard, Sport and for awhile Iris are all awkward and unfulfilling, with the other person invariably put off by his mannerisms. It is this most significant motif that drives Travis’ increasing withdrawal into himself and violence.
Travis’ story can be roughly split up into interacting subplots regarding his attempts to woo Betsy, his guilt and curiosity regarding Iris, his increasing fascination with firearms, and his obsession with Palantine. The first and last of these are connected by Betsy’s job as a staffer for Palantine’s campaign. I believe Travis’ interest in the candidate is two-fold; this is a would-be leader of what Travis sees as a corrupt and dirty society offering no real solution, and a rival for Betsy’s attention. Travis feels the need to study this man, what she must be attracted to, and cannot understand what it is because ultimately Palantine is like other politicians–vague and unhelpful.
The growing attraction to guns begins with an offhand recommendation from a friend that he carry one for protection on the job. We see Travis’ water fizz over with the seltzer as this explosive idea has been planted. It is this same unnamed friend who later introduces him to Easy Andy, his gun dealer. In between is a far more gripping scene where Travis comes face to face with a man who has been cuckolded by his wife—the perpetrator being a black man of course—and plans to kill her with a .44 magnum. Travis will insist on that same gun, and indeed this scene with the unstable passenger also has a twofold interpretation. This is the kind of “rough customer” his friend warned him about, and yet this man and Travis have much in common, both being spurned by a romantic interest and wanting to take revenge at the world. Indeed, when Travis gets his guns, he aims them out the window at people, he takes them to Palantine rallies, and he enjoys the sense of power they give him, which Travis feels he has lacked up to this point. In short, owning guns makes him more aggressive, rather than defensive as his well-meaning friend had intended.
Iris seems to be more of an afterthought to Travis in comparison to Betsy. She appears out of nowhere in his cab one night begging to be taken out of the city, and despite all Travis’ tough-guy attitude about wanting to clean up the streets, he doesn’t do anything to help as a pimp drags her away. The crumpled bill Travis is given for his silence haunts Travis and makes an appearance sporadically in later scenes as a reminder of his impotence. Iris herself is forgotten until Travis quite literally runs into her again. I saw his reaching out to her later in the film as desperation. He has failed to connect with every other person, and now the only hope he has for connection is a hooker who seemed to want to get out of the city just as much as he does. Travis’ goal of freeing her is noble yet in many ways it almost feels impersonal, as if his motive is more to assert strength and self-importance than concern for Iris as a person.
Travis’ breakfast with Iris is sweet, and their genuine chemistry represents the first real connection he makes in the story. It’s a sad reminder that he doesn’t have to go down this path; he might have met someone and been happy if he only tried harder and met the right person. When Travis talks down about Sport, he’s absolutely correct in his negative assessment. Yet at the same time, it should be noted that Travis did the same about Tom on his date with Betsy, again lending doubt to his intentions and sincerity. In short, Travis might just be attacking Sport as a rival for Iris’ affections rather than out of a solid moral position. When he finally rescues Iris, he only does so after his attempt to kill Palantine fails. She is his backup, the canary to Betsy’s pigeon. (To coincide with Tom’s story from earlier in the film.)
Now, if you organize the progression of these subplots through the 4 act structure, the results are quite interesting.
I would personally put the end of the setup at around 18 minutes in, with the first mention of buying a gun and Travis looking at the water fizz, again a powerful visual metaphor for what is to come. Within this timespan, we see Travis being bad with women, he gets the titular job, lays out his bitter worldview, we are introduced to Betsy and Palantine and can see the workings of this narrative forming.
That said, looking at the 30 minute mark also leaves us with a very plausible endpoint, as within those extra 12 minutes we have his first date with Betsy, and see him interact with Palantine and meet Iris— so all subplots are introduced. However, I believe these are more complicating actions because they provide tangents which we cannot be sure how or when will be tied into the main narrative. Combined with the scenes of Travis blowing it with Betsy, his violent outburst, the maniac in the backseat of his cab and the resurgence of the crumpled bill they represent a lot of pressures and frustration mounting in his life.
For this reason, I put the 47 minute mark as the culmination of the conflicting action, which I see as all of those scenes. Here, again, we’re back with his taxi friends which are the only support group Travis has. At first he was obviously somewhat detached from them, we got the feeling he wants more—some kind of intimate companionship—and there was still the possibility of this panning out. Now he has failed at that, he’s failed to stand up to one of the animals (Sport), and ran into a rough customer his friend warned him about. When Travis talks to the Wizard, his “bad ideas” could mean anything, but it shows his anti-social feelings are becoming more violent and there are now many potential outlets for this. Wizard’s non-advice means his only support group cannot help him and he’s further isolated. Again we have a powerful visual metaphor to accompany this turning point, with Travis drenched in red light as he angrily watches passerby.
Then, the end of the development/beginning of the climax for me is when Travis is watching TV and tips it over at 75 minutes in. The previous 30 odd minutes are clearly inter-linked with him buying his guns, becoming more enraptured with weaponry and getting stronger, and his first run-in with the law—the secret serviceman. With the TV scene, we see Travis get very upset watching a couple break up on screen and after this he reaches out to the only possible connection he has left—Iris. Once more, the turning point is marked by a visual metaphor; where he had been teetering on the edge before, Travis has fallen and is ready to explode.
This leaves the remaining 40 minutes as the climax/resolution, and that works well, because they focus almost exclusively on Iris. We even get the sole scene outside of Travis’ perspective, between her and Sport. Here we see Travis again drenched in red with the final shootout, the confused merger of his desire to mean something to somebody and his violent bitterness against society, as well as an interesting callback to the first scene.
Where we started off looking ahead from the cab’s windshield, the final shot after the credits is a cab coming towards us, begging the question if the person behind it, and behind the wheel of all other cabs, is also as unstable as Travis.