written by Omar Castillon (@omar_castillon)
Taxi Driver, starring Robert DeNiro and Jodie Foster is my favorite movie of all time. Now you may be thinking, “That’s a bold statement; Citizen Kane should be your favorite film.” Actually, it was never really my favorite. I’m not going to be that cliché movie lover that always uses Citizen Kane, although a fine film on its own. Again this is my personal favorite. In all honesty, this film is the quintessential of a deep character study. It shows Robert DeNiro’s character, Travis Bickle, his inner thoughts on a “disease ridden” New York City in the 70’s. Let me step back a bit and talk about the basic premise.
The film is about Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, living out his days back from the war and being disgusted by what he left for years before. He moonlights as a cab driver and basically you see his reactions to the life of a lonely cab driver. His pent up anger towards society comes to an explosive conclusion where he stands up for what he believes is wrong in the world. He is the antihero of a crime ridden New York City.
Now that the basics are out of the way, I’m going to talk about what makes Travis Bickle such an intriguing character on screen. The opening shot of the film is filled with vapor and city lights and the headlights of the cab, presumably Travis’ cab. But it is never shown who is in the cab. And that’s ok because the implication is the cab can be anyone that is similar to Travis, lonely and tired of their environment. Once the credits stop rolling, we dive a little closer to the where Travis is looking for a job. His tired eyes and uncomfortable stance makes any normal person cringe at the sight of him. He’s sick, but the audience doesn’t know that yet. When he is being interviewed, the guy interviewing Travis asks him if he was in the service. Travis responds and says honorable discharge from the Marines. That right there is one indication to his distant eyes. The “thousand mile stare” or something similar to that name as some people would say. Nowadays with storytelling, the film would cut to bits and pieces of his time in Vietnam and maybe flashback to the point where he lost his humanity so to speak. But we don’t get that, and that’s ok. Basically with the slow mo walk and narration from Travis, the audience gets a sense of his feelings as he writes to other characters we never see.
This leads me to the constant writing Travis does throughout the entirety of the film. Sometimes Travis address to his parents, sure there was that one card he wrote that he sent to his parent’s on their anniversary, but we never know if his parents are still alive. He writes them almost daily, even during parts where he is fed up with the world. In the letters he mentions fluffed up stories of his day to day. Even his relationship with Betsy, played by Cybill Shepherd, is documented as being a nice and easy relationship. It was far from being the nicest of relationships. Then again, Travis wasn’t really the smoothest guy either since on their first real date he took her to see a porno back when porno theaters were common. And yet Travis confronts her after he sent so many apology flowers and phone calls that were never answered. He said stuff like all women are the same and yada yada yada. Well with that being said Travis looks like the jerk at this point. But can you really blame him?
The reason why he had such crummy luck with Betsy is mainly because he still isn’t used to the world around him. He’s still adjusting to the post war life. Granted during his time being a cab driver has also been a heavy toll on Travis. He even told Betsy on their failed date that he wasn’t much of a movie guy and that he didn’t know since he saw all kinds of couples go to the porno theater. Realize I said he saw. That right there is indication enough to know that Travis is a product of his environment. His environment is full of scum and filth as he would say. Even in one of his narrations he mentions that he feels sick to his stomach of the world around him or something similar to it. The only world he knows at this point is his current one or at least the one Travis wants to show us. He never talks about his days in Vietnam and granted I’m sure it was extremely traumatizing especially when he only mentions it in the first 10 minutes or so of the film. Travis doesn’t know what a normal life is and ends up being a product of the sick world around him.
This leads to his interactions with the cab customers. Granted, I’m sure any taxi driver will have their stories about the weirdos and crazies that they interact with. Wait until I talk about the crazy adventures of Jamie Foxx’s character in Collateral. But enough of that side track. Travis encounters in one point of the film Scorsese playing an angry boyfriend stalking his cheating girlfriend. This dives into the racial tensions of the movie. The scene itself is a tense watch since the audience and Travis have a moment with the crazy boyfriend explaining what he would do to his cheating girlfriend. Even going into graphic detail about what a .44 magnum would do to a woman’s intimate parts. This shocks Travis to the point that he has another mental checkmark of what he disagrees with in his immediate world. That being said, he does get a surprise customer in the form of a presidential candidate named Charles Palantine, played by Leonard Harris.
Travis’ encounter with Palantine sets up events later in the film involving the two characters. I will mention this in a second. Quickly, I will also mention that one important encounter in the film is the one with Travis meeting Iris, played by Jodie Foster. Iris is a child prostitute. That’s right, and there is no way of sugar coating it except by just telling it how it is. Iris is the one character that Travis tries to help escape from their world. Realize also that I mention, “their world,” since now the film focuses on their interactions and Travis wanting to help somebody other than himself for once.
Ok, now that Iris has been established, let’s go back to Travis and Palantine. Palantine is the connection that leads to Betsy, which we all remember is not interested in Travis after that disastrous. This and the short conversation Travis has with Palantine about what he would do to clean up the city create that driving force of Travis wanting to break from the norm of his environment. In comes the famous “montage” of him buying guns and doing the whole “You lookin’ at me” speech. Let’s dive into that scene for a bit.
Travis can still be a good person despite all the bad things in his life... [it's] a clear sign of how even the worst people can have redeeming qualities
The famous “You lookin’ at me” monologue is the turning point of Travis growing more and more at odds with his environment. He wants immediate satisfaction rather than having to wait for some politician to change the world around him. He is taking matters into his own hands. This is where the ideals clash with Palantine, who is only looking for votes, and Travis looking for change. There is a war going on with these ideals and yet the film doesn’t go so far as to create some sort of crazy shootout involving Travis and the secret service as he approaches Palantine like any other man vs. society woul. Oh no, this film shows the war in the form of Travis’ thoughts. The audience only sees his perspective and that alone is frightening to see happen. For a moment, the audience goes into the mind of a psychopath without ever being turned off by the film. Travis becomes that psychopath and practically goes to “war” once again against something he can’t control. Yet he thinks he can control that urge to take action against his environment. In the end we get the Mohawk haircut and failed assassination attempt towards Palantine.
Iris and Travis’ situation is a bit different. Iris is caught up in the world of prostitution, one that is just as horrible as any other world of illegal activity. Travis sees hope in Iris mainly because she is still so young. When they first “met” so to speak, they practically just glanced at each other and without knowing this stops Travis for a bit. He is distraught at what he just witnessed; a 12 year old child with the likes of Sport, played by Harvey Keitel, her pimp. Yeah, this film dives into that kind of territory. What makes Iris and Travis such interesting characters is that they can somewhat relate to each other in their loneliness. Travis is physically alone because he wants to be. Iris isn’t particularly lonely physically, although she does mention she ran away from home in the diner scene, but she feels that emptiness of being Sport’s girl. Sports, like most pimps, have multiple girls. Iris even denies her real feelings saying that she feels special with Sport and that he would never do anything to hurt her. Yet, Sport already hurts her in the form of lying to her and making her a prostitute. Travis sees something wrong with the scenario. Among all the stuff Travis did before inadvertently, and even failing to assassinate Palantine, he sees the opportunity to help Iris escape the world of prostitution.
It’s at this point that the old Travis that went with the motions and just sort of became a passive witness of his environment and practically complaining constantly about wanting to change, actually do something right. Travis then goes to “war” complete with uniform, mohawk and all, and saves Iris from the her toxic environment. Travis’ humanity returns in the form of rescuing Iris, since he sees hope in her becoming a better person. A person he aspires to be someday.
The idea that Travis can still be a good person despite all the bad things in his life, like the crummy job or even the lack of proper social skills, is a clear sign of how even the worst people can have redeeming qualities. Travis Bickle is the reason why people to this day enjoy Taxi Driver, despite all the disturbing themes throughout the film. He exemplifies character study at its finest. The efforts Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese achieved for this film further exemplifies filmmaking in the 70’s. Travis Bickle is the best example of an antihero in the sense of him being completely demented during one end and then being the guy people root for on the other end. Basically what I’m trying to say is if you haven’t taken the time to watch Taxi Driver, you owe to yourself to sit down and watch this masterpiece and my favorite film in the world of cinema.
Omar is true film geek with aspirations to get into film and videos. He brings a new outlook to Lifted Geek and stands as a trusted contributor. Keep an look out for more of his contributions.