Director: Martin Scorsese
Travis Bickle: Robert De Niro
Betsy: Cybil Shepherd
Pimp: Harvey Keitel
Iris: Jodie Foster
Tom: Albert Brooks
Palantine: Leonard Harris
After being honorably discharged from the Marines, Bickle finds work as a cabbie to fill the empty space in his post-combat existence. He takes fares from any walk of life and drives them anywhere, something avoided by and large by most cabbies in the gritty, crime-ridden New York City of the 70's. The viewer sees Bickle as a naïve product of his environment. Here’s a man who had served his country in combat, lives in a small, rundown apartment, and visits the occasional Times Square dirty theater. However, he is consistently against the sex and violence that dominates the city. So enamored by what disgusts him, Travis brings a date, Betsy, to a Swedish sexual education film, RC Cola, Jujubes, and popcorn in hand; coldly gets rejected by one of the few non-female prostitutes featured in the film. For Travis, life is a silent, existential nightmare of crushing ennui. Nowhere to begin, nothing to participate in, and as a result of all this, he is a victim of the motions of those he sees around him.
When transporting a mayoral hopeful in his cab, the viewer sees a shift in Bickle’s thinking. The politician asks what he, the blue collar worker, would want to see changed in the city. Travis talks in length about “cleaning the city up.” While the scene itself isn’t tumultuous or particularly tense, we see more to Travis than previously met the eye. He has been passive long enough, and a longing for action is lit, probably sparked on by his rejected advances with Betsy. This is the turning point that moves Travis into taking matters into his own hands, acknowledging the politician would unlikely even understand what he, Travis, had tried to express.
When Travis goes on his shooting spree it is to save Iris, a twelve year old prostitute, from her pimp. We see an unshakeable tenacity in Travis. He gets shot but keeps going, only showing brief pain and a flinch, and completes the job in a brute force way: no one in the seedy hotel room is safe, except Iris, for whom Travis is doing all this for. After the firefight is finished, there’s the iconic scene of Travis mimicking the gun to his head. Some time passes. Travis recovers. He receives a letter from Iris’s folks as she has returned home and out of the trade for good. He’s declared a hero--a few newspaper clippings can be seen in his apartment. But life moves on in the Big Apple, the crime and sex trade still going strong--in reality, the city wouldn’t be cleaned up like Travis wanted for another decade and a half. But in his small way, Travis was one of the many millions of snowflakes it takes to necessitate an avalanche (film reflects society and thus forces society to see itself--which makes Taxi Driver a historic document; Travis was, until NYC was shampooed in the 90's, a prophecy).
The film works as a critique on 1970s New York City, which was vastly different from the one we know today. The returning troops from the Vietnam war became assimilated into the blue collar class, taking what jobs they could. The crushing ennui faced everyday eventually became an existential despair. What can one do after having a set course in the military and nothing to fall back upon? After making money from his job, trying to date, Travis desires something more. On the surface it’s the cleanup of the city and some reformed ethics, but, deeper, it’s intangible meaning. After constant rejection from regular society, via Betsy, Travis can only go back to what he knows despite hating it: violence. He sees Iris as a means to an end--to fulfill him, to save him from his dour life.
So can we deem Travis a person with good-intensions who just wanted a better city and lapsed into vigilantism, or did he snap, his psyche shatter--has he become another instability in an unstable city?
On the surface: the murder of a pimp and a crooked landlord (who rented rooms that lasted as long as a cigarette burns), and saving an underage prostitute is a net-good for the city. The city is a degree more cleansed, despite making a murderer out of Travis. On a personal level, it’s a win for Travis because he fulfilled his mission (cleaning up the totality of the city is an insurmountable task for any individual; Travis did his part). As the film comes to a close, it appears Travis has discovered peace with being a taxi driver, he stands with other drivers, laughing, his hair grown back. We also see he doesn’t seek validation from Betsy, who as chance would have it, hails his cab; and doesn’t seem to have any further attachment to Iris. With that said, Martin Scorsese has gone on record to explain that Travis is not mentally correct and not a hero in the way society treated him for saving Iris.
Simply because a person believes he has right intent, just cause, does not necessitate a sane mind. The credits have a sense of dread that is inappropriate to a proper mental climate [see the eyes]. Bickle, then, is like all of us: treading a fine line between saint and demon.