Taxi Driver: A New Type of Hero

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is the tale of a social outcast/insomniac, starving for moral redemption.  Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, is a post-war Vietnam veteran turned taxi driver.  He is a loner and far from normal, driving his cab around New York City every night until the earliest hours in the morning.  He quietly observes the concrete jungle, judging internally what is right and wrong, only talking when spoken to first.  The crazy sights that Travis sees and people that he picks up make for an exciting story to watch.  The things that make audiences cringe also keep them entertained.  Scorsese’s Taxi Driver draws on classic film standards, presenting a movie that is psychologically stimulating as well as satisfying the audience’s craving for thematic violence.

Scorsese refined traditional filmmaking techniques, adopting them from Classic Hollywood films, and making them his own.  He took things that he thought were cool in both experimental and classic films and flipped those techniques to create his own style.  He took camera technique that could be confusing, dialed it back and presented it to the audience in a more subtle way.  Scorsese draws from Godard in a few scenes, one where Travis is spacing out and staring at a cup of coffee.  The Godard scene, from 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, features something different, focusing on a cup with Alka-Seltzer taking the point of view of a random person.  This technique is used to depict internal struggle and a feeling of anxiety.  The reading from class makes light of this, providing more detail, making a point that the scene, “suggested the hero’s self-absorption and growing isolation (351).  Scorsese also borrows the jump cut, an editing technique that Godard used, in a scene where Travis amps himself up in front of the mirror.  He says a bunch of phrases, emasculating himself, presented by Scorsese in a choppy way.  In this part, it is not important to see the scene as one continuous take, but as several different takes, jumping around between them.  The viewer is comfortable with this type of story telling; it is known that time is passing and the director is only showing a few keys moments.

Comparisons can be made between this movie and traditional westerns.  Travis comes into town, rides alone on his horse (in this case his taxi cab), finds the issues that plague the common citizens and seeks justice around the law.  He takes sole responsibility for the acts of evil he witnesses within the city.  In his book on Martin Scorsese, Michael Bliss draws a similar conclusion, “Much like the lone cowboys in America’s Old West, where every man with a gun was a law unto himself.” (Bliss 96)  Travis’ traits reflect those portrayed by cowboys in western movies.  This movie continues the style that filmgoers became accustomed to in the western genre and adds new complex issues that were relevant to contemporary audiences of the time.  It is these typical conventions that keep audiences attached; having some previous knowledge of the movie experience opens up possibilities for the story to become weirder but still remain easy to follow.

Travis, although strange, is still relatable to moviegoers, an accomplishment that not all filmmakers are able to achieve.  Scorsese and De Niro take on this challenge, bringing Travis Bickle to life.  Throughout the film, De Niro narrates what Travis is thinking via diary entrees.  This internal dialogue brings the audience into Travis’ private world, while still keeping him a loner within the film boundaries.  The audience learns, through this dialogue and the actions that he takes, that Travis is driven by his morals.  He remains rigid with his beliefs, and keeping the audience in the loop the whole time.  Travis often talks about the scum that lives in the streets and his desire “to clean it up.”  In his world, politics are too weak to deal with the real problems.  This creates a feeling of responsibility in Travis, bringing him to the idea that if anything is going to be fixed, a hero is going to need to step up and deal with it.  He figures that no one is better to step up and make things thing right then himself.  This feeling of heroism is emasculating to Travis.  He wants to be the man and New York’s hero.  His difficulty to realize a normal life, having no close relationships to diffuse his struggle and stress provides depth to his character.  With a self-reflective narrative, the viewer sympathizes with Travis, providing justification for the violent acts that he commits. It is this psychological element that amplifies this film’s connection with the audience and adds to the classic western motif.

Travis turns to violence to ease his mind from social awkwardness.  Travis is seen pretending to fire a gun with his fingers when he sees a happy couple.  In the scene where he buys his gun, he points it around the room, testing the site.  When passing the window, he notices a couple down on the street below, taking them into his target.  He does not shoot this couple, but this kind of behavior serves as foreshadowing to the violent acts that were to come.  There is another few scenes that Travis pretends to shoot a couple: one aimed at the television, another when he is at the porno theatre.  It seems like Travis is jealous and wants nothing other than some kind of companionship.  The depth provided by these gestures provides an interesting insight to audiences, viewing the world of violence seldom seen.

Little by little, Travis is revealed as a crazier than a normal person.  All doubts pass when Travis shaves his hair into a Mohawk and goes on an assassination mission targeting a political candidate.  When his mission is unsuccessful, his need to exercise violence is shifted to another more manageable target.

Iris is being held captive by Sport, used for sexual acts and not respected.  Travis offers redemption; he wants her to get away from the oppression brought on by the pimp.  She is reluctant to follow at first, but Travis makes it impossible to stay when he completely destroys the whorehouse.  He took this responsibility into his own hands, employing violence to solve his world’s problems.  He was successful in his mission with this violent act, diminishing the wrongdoers and returning the innocent girl home to her parents.

Scorsese’ film is hailed as a true American classic, connecting to audiences through familiar filmmaking techniques.  He takes what is known to impress, adds his personal touch, a good script, and great acting.  Taxi Driver is filled with violence, but its psychological touch adds depth to a character bringing the viewer into the world created.

Written By: Alex Evert


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