Updated: Apr 19, 2021
This movie is hailed as one of the greats and deservingly so. It has phenomenal acting, perfect cinematography, and deep music. Everything aligns to get you into the protagonist's state of mind, which you might find relatable but simultaneously abhorrent. It's worth a watch even 45 years later. The rest of this review will contain many spoilers.
I promise all our reviews won't be about Scorsese or Scorsese-like movies. However this movie really stuck with me. I watched it a little while ago and re-watched it to write this in memory of the cinematographer, Michael Chapman, who recently passed away. If you've read my review on Uncut Gems I mention that Scorsese movies make you think you're just watching someone's life events go by without realizing that there is an enormous amount of suspense building up. Taxi Driver goes through a couple weeks of Travis Bickle's (Robert DeNiro's) life as a taxi driver in New York. You don't know much about his past but the movie alludes to issues that seem ripe for return. Travis Bickle is a war vet suffering from insomnia. You get insights into his mind through the journal he writes that provide some narration. He very clearly doesn't like how 'dirty' the streets of New York are. To him, the dirt is pimps, pushers, and prostitutes. He then sees an angel among all this in his crush Betsy, a woman working in the local chapter of a presidential campaign. He basically stalks her until he can ask her on a coffee date. As she gets to know him, she aptly identifies him as "a walking contradiction." For their second date, he ends up taking her to a porno movie in which she obviously freaks out. She blows him off next time they talk on the phone and at this point, the camera is panned away from the pain of the phone call and would rather be looking at an empty hallway. He doesn't understand what he's done wrong. He is just really angry. He's mad at the city, he's mad at unattainable women, he's mad at men that can get women. He never puts a finger on exactly why he's angry himself, and that may be another source of his frustration. His anger itself perpetuates more anger. He feels that the world is against him and that's why he's so lonely.
This starts one of the side stories, a plot to assassinate the presidential candidate. In his eyes, the candidate, Senator Palantine, has no problems of his own. He somehow displaced the anger he felt for Betsy onto Palantine. The other side story revolves around a recurring call-girl that sits in his cab at first and he sees being harassed. He runs into her a couple more times and finds out who she works for. He then meets with her and tries to save her, saying he will give her the money she needs to get out of this life. However, Iris saying that she'll go home isn't enough for him. He wants the men that put her in that position in the first place to be punished and stopped. You get an insight into his mission here. His goal isn't to help the nation by assassinating the senator, or liberate Iris from her circumstances. His goal is to 'clean' the streets at the heart of the issues. He has a binary, black-and-white mentality that motivates him and when he believes something or someone is wrong, whether it is or isn't in society's best interest, he will do anything, even commit murder, to rectify or eradicate that wrong. He feels justified in every action he ever takes.
It's the anger he's accumulated and his loss of purpose that reaches a boiling point in the climax. During the murderous rampage near the end, the camera never pans away. Supposedly less painful than that breakup call. When I watched the movie the first time I interpreted the ending at face value, where Travis survives and is hailed as a hero. He sees Betsy again and acts perfectly and over her. She tries to talk to him more but he is content with how everything worked out. However, upon re-watching the ending, I noticed the birds-eye view of the bloody bodies with Travis slumped over and blood-soaked, and realized that perhaps what follows is Travis' unrealistic dying thoughts. That Iris went home, that he impressed Betsy with his bravery, that he isn't in jail. I think he wanted to do something worthy before dying and this entire movie is just him trying to put a story together for himself. Travis' slow death as opposed to controlling his suicide felt like an appropriate ending to his story. Scorsese and DeNiro have both publicly said that Travis did survive the gunfight and that they didn't intend for the ending to lack belief because of it. Personally I feel in that case, the movie is too subtle a critique of people doing the wrong things in the name of vigilantism. It's odd that the movie would allow it to be okay for someone to get all their rage out and then be content and move on with their life and be a hero. That being said, the takeaway that Travis' self-righteousness is his ultimate downfall is the same, granted less severe, if he survives. In the very last scene, he doesn't look as if he got away with murder—there's no guilt. His facial expressions tell you that he hasn't learned his lesson. And why would he? After murdering three men with illegal guns he's still a free man. Knowing that his self-righteousness was rewarded, we are left wondering not if, but when Travis will violently try to 'clean' the streets again.
In Taxi Driver, you think that maybe the movie is commenting on how New York has a lot of cleaning up to do. But that's not the case. The movie is about a self-righteous taxi driver who is drawn to what makes him angry. You don't know where his anger originates and you can only speculate where it's directed. He says at a point, "I just want to go out and really, really do something." And then proceeds to buy a bunch of guns. He creates his own hero story and when the first one doesn't succeed, he has a back up. It wasn't about Palantine, or about Iris, or even abut Betsy, it's only about Travis Bickle.