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The meaning of Taxi Driver

Impressions on re-watching Martin Scorsese’s classic 1976 film.

By Ian Leslie

I recently re-watched Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver after it came up on Netflix. I saw it at BFI Southbank about 20 years ago. I remember leaving the theatre in a daze. More than most art forms, cinema has a narcotic quality. It puts you under. When you leave the dark space, the fever dream of an enthralling film, you find the quotidian world transfigured, everything different – people, cars, shops, conversations. I remember this happening to me with peculiar intensity after Taxi Driver. I experienced myself differently. I felt as if Travis was inside me – and if you know anything about the movie, you’ll know that is not a nice way to feel. It was like I’d been poisoned. At the same I time I knew it was one of the greatest movies I’d ever seen. Watching a film on a TV doesn’t allow for that kind of immersion and so the experience wasn’t as potent this time round, but I did agree with my younger self about how good it is. Yes, I realise this is not my most excitingly contrarian take.

So, I have a few notes. I won’t attempt to summarise Taxi Driver. You probably know it; if you don’t, go rectify this immediately. I apologise in advance to film buffs, of which I am not one, who may find what follows painfully naive. These are just my impressions.

I’d forgotten how likeable, or almost likeable, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is in the first third of the movie, before he gets spurned by Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). We can tell he is an unhappy and tortured young man, but there’s something childlike and raw about him. He exhibits a yearning for – well it’s not clear yet, but at the start it seems as if it might be human connection. We can tell he lacks some essential protective membrane between him and the world. What gives us permission to think he’s OK is that Betsy likes him. She goes on a date with him! On a couple of dates, actually, with this edgy, awkward guy who is clearly her social and intellectual inferior, and who comes in off the street to declare himself to her. Since the writing is so good and the two of them play their scenes so well, it seems believable. Travis, at this stage, seems like he might be a grown-up Holden Caulfield, a guy who sees through all the phoniness of the world. Betsy calls him “a prophet and a pusher”. A lesser film would have made Travis an asshole from the beginning.

As the story unfolds, we learn that there is something seriously off with Travis’s social radar. He takes Betsy to a dirty movie under the apparently sincere impression that it’s a perfectly normal thing to do on a first date (he is always earnest, never teasing or lascivious). After his indignant reaction to her decision to walk away, we start to see that his naivety isn’t sweet or innocent. It isn’t false or calculating either, but it is a kind of blindness to people as they are. Travis sees what he wants to see, and what he sees in Betsy is a vision of feminine perfection.

Scorsese makes us see the vision too. People who know about film will be able to point to angles and lighting and other techniques, but whatever achieves it the effect is to make Betsy absolutely refulgent (credit to Shepherd, of course). This is something the film does superbly; it makes us inhabit the mind of a character we grow to despise. We live inside Travis’s head, whether we want to or not, and consequently he lives in ours.

By the time that Travis turns his attentions to Iris, a teenage prostitute played by a 12-year-old Jodie Foster, we are aware that something is wrong with him, that there is something desperate and dangerous about his obsession with women he thinks need saving from a filthy world. He retains his fascination with Betsy and becomes fixated on the politician that she is working for, and we imagine the film is going to culminate in an attack on this figure, or on her, or both (it feints in that direction). Still, we don’t turn away from Travis completely. The film is careful to show us that he takes no sexual interest in Iris, and that his desire to help her escape is genuine, even if we sense it is motivated by something darker than altruism.

We watch Travis transform himself into a Mohican-headed, gun-carrying, knife-wielding assassin. What struck me about the famous “You talking to me?” scene is how quiet it is. Whenever people imitate it they do it pugnaciously, aggressively: “YOU TALKING TO ME? YOU MUST BE TALKING TO ME…” Understandably, given that it’s a prelude to an (imaginary) assassination. A lesser actor might have delivered the material that way. But De Niro keeps his voice down, as if not wanting to disturb the people in the next apartment (he is, generally speaking, a polite young man). The effect is to enhance our sense of a character who lives in his own head, who talks only to himself.

[See also: Tár is a crafty, cryptic take on art and morality in the online age]

The film shows us Travis and, at the same time, shows us the world he sees. Everything is real and also woozily phantasmagorical. I defer to experts on how Scorsese achieves this but he mixes cinematic realism with a very heightened, aestheticised style: zooming in on a glass of water bubbling furiously; slow motion for Betsy’s first appearance; jump cuts; that frozen tableau from above at the end of the climactic scene. Scorsese doesn’t regard himself as a realist: “Every film should look the way I feel,” he once said.

Travis impulsively shoots and kills a black man robbing a corner shop (his hostility towards black people is communicated without being spelled out). Now we really see how messed up he is (and how messed up the city is: the Latino shop-owner shoos Travis from the shop so that he can spend some quality time with the dead guy, kicking him in the head).

Still, the reason we stay with Travis – just a little, just about – is that he hates the right person. He hates Iris’s pimp, Sport, played by Harvey Keitel, and we hate Sport, too. Sport is blatantly, obviously repellent in a way that Travis isn’t (in a way that Travis would have been in a lesser movie): cocky, cold, ruthless, bullying, absolutely amoral. When Travis shoots him, we’re appalled, but we’re not sorry.

Just before that happens, there’s a brilliant, short, disgusting scene I’d forgotten about; maybe I blanked it out because it’s so nauseating. It’s the scene where Sport takes Iris in his arms and they slow-dance while he tells her how much he loves her and needs her. It comes after she met Travis in a café and talked about escaping New York. Sport can tell she’s having these thoughts – it’s probably happened before – and he knows just what to say to keep her on the job. It’s heartbreaking and enraging. Why does Scorsese include this? To keep us on side with Travis, right up to the last minute. Travis isn’t in this scene; this is for our eyes only. I think the film is smearing us in a bit of the blood that is about gush through the apartment building where Sport and his gang run their sordid business. Didn’t we feel murderous in that moment?

Scorsese regards Taxi Driver as a feminist film: “Because it takes macho to its logical conclusion. The better man is the man who can kill you.” He says it’s about the “goddess-whore complex”. That doesn’t seem quite right, though. Yes, Betsy is revered by Travis and Iris is a prostitute, but Travis doesn’t sexually desire Iris, which is what the Madonna-whore model would imply. Indeed, Travis’s sexuality is strikingly absent from the film. We don’t see him lusting after women, or masturbating in his apartment. He goes to see dirty films but there’s no sign he is aroused by them; it’s like he’s watching them for information. Neither does he engage in violence against women, which is certainly a path the film might have taken and which at points we think it will. No. Taxi Driver is about men looking at, competing with and desiring to be certain kinds of men. The women are proxies.

Films or novels that have a moral message, even the supposedly intelligent ones, usually play to one of our fundamental prejudices: that other people are terrible. Right from the beginning of most villain-hero stories, you know who you’re supposed to dislike. You then get the satisfaction of seeing them fail and of having your own heroic self-image confirmed. What makes Taxi Driver great is the way it implicates the viewer. It shows us that, even if most us are not about to kill anyone, we all have certain urges in common with Travis, and we all participate in the stories that Travis draws on to make himself a killer; stories of strong, good, lonely men up against an evil world (Dirty Harry was a big hit, five years before). It invites us to acknowledge our responsibility for the beast, as Prospero does with Caliban. Scorsese’s cameos underline the point. He is briefly in the frame, admiring Betsy as she floats into the campaign offices. Later, of course, he’s in the back of Travis’s cab, playing a seemingly respectable guy who is also a raging psychopath. Scorsese doesn’t stand coolly apart from his creation; he’s part of it.

The film ends with a kind of dark joke. We learn that Travis, after his horrific shooting spree, doesn’t go to jail but is acclaimed as a noble hero who saved a girl from prostitution. Travis’s dream of himself has become reality. Betsy even reappears, a spectral smile in the back of his cab. I don’t know if this closing section is meant to be a dream that Travis had or if it’s for real, albeit viewed through the deranging filter of his psyche. Either way, it acts as a reminder that men like Travis Bickle exist because we want them to.

This piece was originally published in Ian Leslie’s newsletter, The Ruffian.

[See also: Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a spectacular mess]

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