Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert DeNiro, Taxi Driver details the everyman’s downward spiral into psychopathy. Travis Bickle, an unassuming and lonely NYC cabbie, seeks human connection amid what he sees as the human cesspool of the city. But the irony is that Travis himself is only a hairsbreadth removed from being the very embodiment of the filth that the hates so much.
Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver when he was only twenty-six years old. He based the character of Travis Bickle on himself during a particularly low point in his life. In an interview with The Guardian, Schrader says, “I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks … that was when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me. That is what I was: this person in an iron box, a coffin, floating round the city, but seemingly alone.”
Bickle’s taxi cab floats through the red lit streets of New York City, and within the cab, is Bickle himself, alien and alone. He attempts first to connect with his fellow cab drivers then Betsy, played by Cybill Shepherd. But after taking Betsy to a pornographic film—not even having the social skills to realize it’s an inappropriate venue for a date—Bickle refuses to take no for an answer and develops an obsession with Betsy. The first hints of “headaches” or the 1970’s version of “I’m really a psychopath and this is the setup for my total breakdown into violence.”
After Betsy rejects Bickle, he tries to connect with a twelve-year old prostitute named Iris. Played by Jody Foster, Iris is old beyond her years and more astute in her social skills than Bickle. In a clever foil to Bickle, Iris is equally as alone. She has nowhere to go and even refuses help when it’s offered. Instead of a taxi cab, her iron box, her coffin, is the tiny room from which she’s pimped out to johns.
During this time, Bickle’s psychopathy escalates. He buys a gun, begins to gain the attention of the Secret Service, and even shoots a robber in a convenience store. All of his actions are justified, at least in his own mind. But as he’s pushed further to the fringes of society, his actions continue to escalate in a wild bid for someone, anyone to notice him.
Through it all, Bickle isn’t suicidal. He aborts his attempt to assassinate Palantino, the Presidential candidate, rather than risk being caught. In Iris’s room, after his murder spree, Bickle puts the pistol to his chin and pulls the trigger but he’s out of ammunition. This was the only moment in the movie that I didn’t believe. Why now, after all the build up of a man who felt justified in his course of action, after he’d rescued Iris, and killed men who he saw as the scum of humanity, would he attempt to take his own life—even before the police arrive?
The greatest irony is that Bickle is lauded as a hero for shooting up the brothel and killing both Iris’s pimp and multiple johns. We know from inhabiting Bickle’s point of view for the entire movie that this man, this character, is no hero. He’s far from it. He’s a menace to himself and others. Perhaps that’s the most chilling part of the movie—wondering how many villains walk amongst us in the mantle of hero.