Martin Scorsese became one of the best American film directors for a reason. He came in at the right time and created gritty films about men looking for redemption by some force (if he didn’t go into film, Scorsese was going to become a priest). However, unlike his other films, Taxi Driver doesn’t really provide that redemption. That’s because the redemption he needs is not one that could be granted n this film. The redemption needed for Travis Bickle is one that can only exist in his mind.
Travis Bickle, portrayed here by Robert De Niro, is a Vietnam vet with insomnia who takes the night shift as a taxi driver in New York. At night, he sees the worst of everything in the city and resents it. After meeting a girl he likes, Betsy, played by Cybill Shepherd, who works as a volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine, who is running for president, he ends up sabotaging his date. That’s not the turning point for the film, by the way, as Cybill factors little in the overall plot. The actual plot is Travis’ mental decline, his descent into insanity, his increasingly antisocial behavior, his need to be John Wayne in The Searchers (that’s not a film-snob joke. The film was actually inspired by The Searchers in the way Travis obsesses over the two girls in the film.).
This is not a comfortable film to watch. We’ve all seen a man go insane on film, but never as objectively as here. Unlike similar films, we see no surreal moments or hallucinations. We just see Travis, becoming more and more obsessed with his romantic notion of “saving” Cybill and Iris from Palantine and Sport, respectively. The famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene illustrates this, as he is finally armed and is increasingly paranoid, enough so to make the audience wonder why we should be following him.
Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader understand and that’s where Iris is introduced. Travis’ anger is largely aimless for most of the film, but it is mostly against the “filth of New York City”. Iris is meant to be why we don’t want Travis to fail. Iris is a child prostitute that is being pimped out be Sport (Harvey Kietel). No matter what else Travis does that is wrong or bad, we as the audience want to see him rescue Iris from Sport, just on the basis of how wrong that entire situation is. And that is why we care about what the outcome of the final shootout is: because every other psychotic action he has done can be redeemed by us, the audience, if he can kill a pimp who pimps out a child.
Taxi Driver has a form of manipulation at it’s core that shouldn’t work. That it does is not a slap in the face to us, but a relief. We know Travis is the villain, but we will follow him if he seems right. But it shows that we will follow a villain in all of his bad choices. We identify with Travis, but cannot agree with him, yet we want to see him rescue Iris. And this manipulation makes us follow an incredibly uncomfortable and at times disturbing film. After all, we all want to see a psychopath succeed now, and this is why.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jody Foster, Harvey Kietel