Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, at a medical level suffers from mental instability, at a societal level suffers from bigotry, and at a personal level from loneliness and the inability to connect with anyone around him. He cannot sleep and so drives his taxi around at incredibly late hours while staring out the windows at, what he calls, the filth and rabble on the streets. He stares down black men and women, never speaking a word specifically against them, but his glances and actions give words where there are none. With each attempt at a new connection, with each failure, he drops deeper into his own insanity and egotistical mindset.
His days are plagued with this loneliness. His drives in the taxi are montaged with shots of the populated streets of New York, filled with neon lights signaling bars and restaurants, yet he sits alone in his car, alone in a city of millions. Despite his apparent hatred of humanity, he needs some cure to his loneliness, and so seeks out a woman, Betsy, whom he has seen working at a local campaign office for Palantine, a man running in the primary race for the presidency. Even with her acute interest in him, and his initial way with words, he has no clue how to date or how to interact with someone living outside of his lifestyle and mindset. She leaves him sitting in the adult movie theater, confused as to why she left.
Travis is not only unable to connect with others, nor is he simply bigoted against those he believes are ruining the city, but he has an astounding level of egotism which, after this first rejection, sets him on the path to his self-proclaimed glory. He talks with Palantine in his cab, telling him of the disease that is New York, and Palantine’s response that it is one of his goals to clean these streets seems entirely uninspired. So he arms himself heavily, solidifying his idealized purpose as a lone and vital militant.
The assassination attempt on Palantine serves two purposes. First, as Travis has seen Palantine’s hypocrisy in speaking only what the voters wish to hear, he will ensure that this sort of candidate will never be elected. But, as Betsy has worked tirelessly to help him get elected, Travis will also spite her with this act, simultaneously ruining her work and fueling his own ego and masculinity. After the failure of the attempt, he needs some other act to prove to himself that he is the city’s savior. He puts himself in a position to save a “damsel in distress” as he goes to kill the pimps who are prostituting Iris, a young girl he met while walking the streets. Even though he believes he has accomplished a feat out of a hero’s journey, Iris’ screams and pleas show the reality of the situation. Likely, she will be entirely traumatized having experienced such a scene, but even society and her own parents laud Travis for his heroism. He himself has become a hypocrite, criticizing the disgusting aspects of the cities populace and becoming one of those people himself.
Taxi Driver is a gorgeous and nearly perfectly crafted film. The slow and haunting jazz follows Travis and allows us into his mindset as he stares out at the populated, and in his mind plagued, streets of the city. His silent interactions with the man played by Scorsese, and those with the other drivers in the bar, show how even without constantly expressing his hatred, he is always seething below the surface. In his character, Scorsese has created one of the greatest and most haunting character studies about loneliness and mental illness that over 30 years later is still almost impossible to match.
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