Loneliness in Taxi Driver (1976)
A powerfully dark tale of a lonely taxi driver in a society which does not care for him. As he is pushed over the edge among avid corruption in the city the accumulation of trauma invokes violent, psychotic uprising. So many themes are crammed into this unsettling drama: politics, capitalism, consumerism, prostitution, treatment of the working class, the status quo and loneliness. The latter theme I see as the central motif and driving force in the narrative.
Job as Life
Protagonist Travis Bickle played frighteningly realistic by Robert De Niro is a working class New York cabbie who is unable to sleep or stay in one place and seeks additional work for long, nightly hours to pass the time. His very profession implies constant transit and movement from area to area which reflects his restless character. In him taking ‘the scum of the earth’ around the city he is implicated in their corruption; he facilitates their journey into immorality. Despite this, Travis is bound to his work as it epitomises and suits him. In a way, taxi driving is a physical or metaphysical part of his identity a symbiosis between man and machine as seen in his reprisal of the job after the final showdown.
Travis cannot leave his work it is almost his captor, and he suffers from crippling Stockholm syndrome. This job-as-life mentality rings true so perfectly in urban society in the seventies and even to this day almost four decades later. Many of us are trapped in laboursome, low-paying jobs which have become a dominant part in our lives. However, what Scorsese does with Bickle is slightly different – he works not due to income but due to boredom and more widely loneliness. He does epitomise the working class person chained to their profession, but he is left so intensely lonely and without purpose without it that it literally keeps him alive. In a broader sense, Bickle is the living embodiment of the New York metonym ‘the city that never sleeps’.
Mental health is explored in such a nuanced manner in the movie and is fuelled by Travis’s loneliness. He has no real friends that he can talk to besides his workmates and Betsy who eventually leaves him. Betsy is an interesting character to analyse, she promotes the presidential campaign of Charles Palentine and is attracted to Travis’s hopeless desperation and loneliness. When she leaves Travis and Travis contemplates on the issue he states:
‘I realise now how much she’s just like the others, cold and distant, and many people are like that, women for sure, they’re like a union’Bickle about ex-girlfriend Betsy
This ‘cold and distant’ nature pervades throughout the film and even Travis’s profession often creates an unspoken distance between driver and passenger. In Travis’s eyes, he is the perfect man for Betsy, but his infatuation affects his judgement as he drives her away with uncouth hobbies. This contributes massively to his psychotic state and invokes extremism eventually aborted at the last second. He is also alone which allows him to brew disturbing thoughts and accumulate stress.
Without Betsy, Travis is unable to unload his burdens through conversation. We see him almost open up to Wizard in the iconic line:
‘I got some bad ideas in my head’.Travis’s insanity brews
Wizard fails to affect him with a response, so Travis is left with no real advice or catharsis. This is an example of masculine ineptitude for discussing feelings which encases Travis even further into solitude and repression until the very end. Moreover, Betsy’s presence as a female listener and crush comforts Travis and promotes conversation; she is a remedy for his woes to a degree.
Loneliness through Directing
Scorsese elicits loneliness in so many different ways but directing is the most powerful for me. In every diner scene where Travis meets his fellow cabbies he is not a part of the conversation unless invited and is physically a table or a few seats away from the others. When Travis attempts to phone Betsy for another date we see him on the phone as the camera moves slowly away from him to the right and pans down an empty hallway which lingers for a few seconds until Travis comes into shot. This epitomises his desperation, loneliness, and seclusion. The iconic mirror scene is quite possibly the single most profound insight into a character’s loneliness and mental state in film. We do not see the mirror rather it is implied through dialogue. Scorsese shows a sequence of repetitive questions and actions to show us Travis’s mind state in the throes of utter loneliness, anxiety and full on insanity as he prepares for mayhem. To think the scene was improvised makes it all the more impressive.
Travis is a perceptive character who is constantly observing. This introduces voyeurism in the film most blaringly apparent through the pornographic theatres he frequents. During one of these scenes, Travis purchases a whole host of snacks from the foyer including brands such as Coca Cola which pops up throughout the film. Even though product placement is common in film, Scorsese emphasises junk food and sugar to further embed the hopelessness and unhealthy lifestyle in New York. Jodie Foster’s character, Iris, showers her coffee with sugar just like Travis does with his cereal. There is a habitual nature to the actions above suggesting the characters are entrenched and used to these unhealthy lifestyles; they are almost chained to consumerism in the city.
A Tragic Hero
Finally, I’d like to discuss Travis as a rather unorthodox tragic hero. Fuelled by a lonely existence and insomniac workaholism, Travis navigates the immorality of New York’s boroughs yet possesses a righteous quality. Despite his transporting of the corrupt and a desensitisation to things such a pornography, he has a clear moral compass and detests the filth around him. These corrupt standings are what drive him insane and to the point of terrorising a political rally after his rejection at the hands of Betsy and obsession with politician, Charles Palantine.
‘I think someone should just take this city and just… just flush it down the f*****’ toilet.’Travis Bickle
We see Bickle’s sense of justice slowly come back into focus when he meets Iris, the child prostitute, who he vows to help get off the streets. Travis now has reason and the ability to change something for a good cause. What ensues pushes him to the very limit as he storms the brothel and shoots the sleazy pimps to save her. Along the way he is injured but remarkably able to persevere almost like a robot with a singular purpose to eliminate enemies. Therefore, his hectic character arc portrays heroism and hope as the saving of Iris generates media attention.
Travis has triumphed against the corrupt status quo but in reality has merely dented its fortitude. This is evident in the denouement where we see him return to his job and downplay being shot in the neck. He is a hero to Iris’s parents and locally but from his perspective he just did what was right. Scorsese elevates the idea of a taxi driver a medium for transportation and mundane civil servant and creates the complexity of Travis Bickle. He is not deterred by the traumatic incident it’s just business-as-usual and he is doomed to a lonely existence as ‘God’s lonely man’. Travis realises that one random act cannot change the world and his tragic flaw was believing it could. Despite this, he is saved miraculously from death which makes him an unorthodox tragic hero in my eyes as Scorsese provides moral clarity in a city clouded by smoke.