In any story, the protagonist is typically the “good guy,” it’s the guy the audience roots for, it’s the guy that the viewer wants to succeed. As the cinematic world evolved throughout the 20th century, the boundaries for what a protagonist could be were pushed beyond any limitations that were thought to be. Filmmakers have been redefining the concept of a protagonist in a multitude of ways, and one of these ways is by making the protagonist an undesirable person, somebody who may lack morality, or is maybe just an evil person; but at the same time, it’s these same traits that make those characters some of the most complex and intriguing to date. Many characters from a vast amount of films fall under this category, some notorious ones being Alex DeLarge (A Clockwork Orange), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction), Derek and Danny Vinyard (American History X), and one of my personal favorites of all time, from director Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece, Travis Bickle of the film Taxi Driver.
Martin Scorsese is a director, producer, and screenwriter from the New Hollywood Era, and was one of the many directors at the time to push filmmaking in new directions and produce cutting-edge films, some of his most famous being The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Gangs of New York, and of course, Taxi Driver. His films often explore people’s complexities in modern society, often being unstable people trying to find a spot for them in their world. Taxi Driver serves us a take on this exact concept, with Travis Bickle being one of the most prominent examples of instability and toxic masculinity to date.
Taxi Driver follows a 26-year-old Vietnam veteran named Travis Bickle, a lonesome man who takes up a job as a taxi driver, due to his inability to sleep at night. Travis spends the majority of his days and nights driving around New York City, transporting all different kinds of people to their desired destination. As time goes on, he becomes infatuated with a woman named Betsy, a woman who is largely involved in a senator’s election campaign, but he fails to be desirable to her. As Travis witnesses the decay of a once beautiful city, he gains the urge to meet the vulgar people with violence and embarks on a mission to save a pre-teen prostitute named Iris from a life on the streets.
Taxi Driver is critically acclaimed for an abundance of reasons, with just some of those being the stunning visuals, the jaw-dropping performances, and the impeccable writing/dialogue and directing. To say the least, Taxi Driver is one of the most visually appealing films ever to hit the big screens of cinema. The entire film is shot beautifully, the use of lighting to reflect Travis’s state of mind, and the film’s overall themes are executed brilliantly. Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman create a hazy, dream-like atmosphere to display most of the scenes featuring Travis driving his taxi during the night, with bright lights shining in all directions to contradict the dark night and to place emphasis on Travis’s growing mental instability. Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, and Harvey Keitel, the amazing actors give some of their best performances in their careers, the standout obviously being De Niro. I personally would argue that this is De Niro’s best performance in any film he’s been in, and I’ve seen many movies with the acclaimed actor. His line delivery is unparalleled, he delivers some of the most thought- inducing, cold, and iconic dialogue and monologues all at the same time, ie the infamous “You talkin’ to me?” scene where Travis envisions an interaction with an imaginary person, where he displays his excitement towards a violent altercation. The supporting actors also complement De Niro with an impressive ability to portray their characters with brutal honesty, with the young Jodie Foster being a huge standout. Having to fulfill a disturbing role for such a young actress was very bold, but Foster was able to deliver a convincing portrayal of a pre-teen caught in a bad situation. Scorsese clarifies that he knows exactly what he wants out of the actors throughout the film, as no actor shows a lack of direction for their given character. The dialogue throughout the film, especially between Travis and Betsy, and Travis and Iris, is written and portrayed so naturally, no matter how delusional or naive it might sound. The actors only enhance this factor of Taxi Driver. Travis’s monologues are also executed perfectly, with memorable and evocative lines to display the downward spiral that Travis falls into. One more thing that shines throughout the film is the eerie, intense, but beautiful soundtrack composed by the late Bernard Hermann. The soundtrack helps to build intensity in every scene, reflect everything happening inside Travis’s head, and truly elevates the film.
Thematically, Taxi Driver is one of the most mindful films to tackle the concepts of isolation, loneliness, mental instability, psychological disorder, toxic masculinity, and a sense of purpose. Travis Bickle is the embodiment of a lonely man who fails to understand how to express his frustration and confusion, causing his mental state to deteriorate into an inferno of violent anger. Early in the film, Travis narrates things he writes about in his journal, starting with simple comments on his daily routines. Still, as the film progresses, these journal entries start to become more delusional and childish as Travis’s mental state begins its downfall until they just stop entirely. As a result of intense loneliness and the fantastical sense of purpose that he adopts and embraces, Travis becomes the perfect representation of a man consumed by a toxic masculine idea of being a “hero.” Travis succumbs to the idea that he should be something more than he is, and in turn adopts a vigilante-like mindset that he uses to satisfy his frustration. The entire concept of Travis Bickle, his worldview and moral compass, is summed up by a line early on from Betsy during a date with Travis, where she implies that Travis is “a walking contradiction.” This interaction is one of the most important in the entire film, as Travis is the prominent example of “a walking contradiction.” Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader leave it to the audience to figure what exactly is “a walking contradiction” and how it applies to Travis, so I’m going to do the same with my audience and leave it to the viewers to interpret it for themselves, as merely explaining it could not do this brilliant thematic concept any justice.
Martin Scorsese created a film that transcends any norm or expectation of a moving picture and made something that can truly be classified as art. Everything about Taxi Driver is simply brilliant. The presentation, direction, performances, thematic realm, and ambiguous message are all executed with perfection, making the film truly ahead of its time, as Travis Bickle redefined what a protagonist could truly be. Taxi Driver has been a monumental influence in cinema ever since its release, and has made myself view films in a new light, it opened my eyes to what a film could truly be.
“I’m God’s lonely man.”