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Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver

By Patrick Samuel • February 23rd, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Columbia Pictures

Original release: February 8th, 1976
Running time: 113 minutes

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul Schrader
Composer: Bernard Herrmann

Cast: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster, Martin Scorsese

Taxi Driver

Life in a big city can destroy the soul of anyone who dares to wander into it. Small town guys who come looking for a better life; a good job and to work their up, hoping to make a name for themselves, can easily get sucked into an obscurity far worse than the one they’re hoping to escape. Despair and angst boils with indifference, rejection and the utter loneliness city life can expose them to.

Taxi Driver is a film that each time I look at it, something new jumps out at me. That, to me, is one of the signs of a great film. There must be something in it that no matter where you’re from or when or how you look at it, something clicks, whether it’s the personal crisis the main characters face or the epoch in general.

Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader, it’s a story that perfectly summarises the discontent of a nation through the eyes of one man, Vietnam veteran and night time taxi driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) as he stares down what Karl Marx once called “the epoch of the bourgeoisie”. Unable to sleep, he takes a job as a night-time taxi driver. Driving through the labyrinthine streets of New York he sees the filth and scum that’s plunging the country into a darkness much like the one he’s been falling into for some time now. He hopes that “someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

Taxi Driver

When he’s not working, Travis visits porn cinemas to pass his time. Back in his squalid apartment he writes in his diary about how he feels and the medication he’s been taking. He sends postcards back home to his parents deceiving them with stories about working with the government and why he can’t give them his address. He’s infatuated with a young woman, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who works as a campaign volunteer for New York Senator, Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), but he doesn’t quite know how to approach her and when he does, he fails to impress her on the most basic level.

Betsy rejects him and then he has a chance encounter with an underage prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), which ends up fuelling his desires to clean up the city. Travis arms himself with guns and knives, but after his assassination of Senator Palantine fails, he then tries to liberate Iris from the clutches of her pimp, “Sport” (Harvey Keitel). As he tries to kill the father figure of one and fails, he kills the father figure of the other and becomes a hero.

It’s a powerful story of alienation and we feel for Travis as he descends into misanthropy brought on by his frustrations and feelings of powerlessness. Our empathy for him grows even as he commits these acts of violence. Taxi Driver exudes all of that alienation and rebelliousness that began with Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) but continues here on a truly adult level as our anti-hero becomes consumed with his misguided humanism. There’s something broken, both in Travis and society, and he doesn’t know how to fix either. Taxi DriverIt leaves us with the idea that if there’s anything he loathes more, it’s himself. He seems to be a man suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Perhaps the war was too much for him, maybe he was already damaged goods by the time he reached New York, whatever the case might be, it’s definitely his time living there that’s tipped him over the edge.

Others have pointed out the film’s ambiguous ending, likening it to a dying dream sequence, and equating Travis with an avenging angel. This may be, but I also feel we shouldn’t ignore the film’s obvious existentialist themes either. They’re as present here as they are in Sartre’s Nausea (1938) and Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915). Like Antoine Roquentin and Gregor Samsa, Travis is a man facing an existential crisis in the truest sense. He encounters his freedom and sees the absurdity in the life around him, he feels the loneliness, despair and abandonment, but he also recognises it in others too; Betsy and Iris, and he responds to it in the only way he knows; with violence. He makes his own rules as he goes along and his own choices, he knows his existence precedes his essence.

“What do we mean by saying existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees he is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have conception of it. Man simply is.” ¹

  • [1] Sartre, J.P. (1948) Existentialism & Humanism, Methuen & Co Ltd ¹

Taxi Driver is perhaps not the best way to sell existentialism, but then Scorsese and Schrader are hardly existentialists, nevertheless the film has something very important to say about it in relation to the hypocrisy of morality and other Catholic imposed ideas in western society.

Films like Taxi Driver have that great power of helping us understand our own complicated lives as it puts us in these intense situations and into the minds of characters who commit these acts. In doing so, we gain insights into the darker parts of human nature, parts of ourselves, where we’re normally too afraid to go, which is one of the reasons it remains such a classic.

Taxi Driver

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick's work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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