At the very beginning of the movie, we see Travis Bickle's taxi emerging ominously from a cloud of steam. It has a really eerie vibe—we get the sense that we're not in a good place. After all, what good things ever move from a misty, spectral place into the light? We can only think of "Voldemort," "zombies" and "ghost ships."
…and none of those are exactly things we want to encounter in a dark, foggy, Midtown alley.
In fact, in Scorsese' vision, New York City seems to really be Hades. Travis' taxi is gliding through this dark, nightmarish world, lit with the garish neon lights that start flashing past us after we see the taxi and see Travis' eyes surveying the street. The screenwriter, Paul Schrader, said in a reddit AMA that,
"A taxi cab, for example, was a metaphor for loneliness."
The cab is a confined space, with a solitary person driving around looking for fares—a perfect way of encapsulating isolation in an urban wasteland.
Also, since this is the first shot of the movie, it's establishing location, and it's also establishing the tone or feel of the movie. Right away, we know this isn't a zany romantic comedy about a taxi driver looking for love. It's a gritty exploration of a place that isn't very nice.
When Travis is still obsessed with winning Betsy over—after disturbing her by taking her to a porn flick on their first date, that is—he tries to make it up to her by buying her flowers. He doesn't know her address, though, and he ends up having a bunch of bouquets lying around his room. They start to rot and he says that their smell is giving him a headache. He also imagines that he has stomach cancer.
The decay of the flowers definitely mirrors Travis' own mental state of decay. Since he's failed to connect with another person—a person who would've accepted the flowers—they stay in his room (like he does so frequently) and fester. They're a good thing gone bad, which maybe implies that Travis really was, originally, a good person who is now rotting on the inside.
Finally, Travis gets to a point where he ritualistically burns the remaining flowers—indicating the he's put Betsy and the whole human dream of love and connection behind him. Now, he just wants to wreak vengeance on New York—kill some people.
Martin Scorsese says he intended to film this as being like Catholic Mass—with Travis lighting shoe polish on fire before burning the flowers, kind of like a priest lighting candles. However, this is a parody of Mass—instead of being a ceremony of life, it's a ceremony of death. (Scorsese says he was aiming for the same sense of a Mass-like ritual in the scene where the gun dealer lays out guns on a bed like he's preparing an altar).
Travis likes to wear his Marine jacket everywhere—to the personnel office where he gets hired as a taxi driver at the beginning of the movie, to the Charles Palantine rallies where he fantasizes about killing the presidential candidate, and during the murder rampage at the end (among other places). On this jacket, he has a patch on the shoulder, identifying him as a member of "King Kong Company." This was apparently his unit when he was a marine in Vietnam.
According to Martin Scorsese, the King Kong Patch is meant to symbolize the fact that Travis Bickle is like King Kong trying to save Fay Wray in King Kong. Like King Kong, he doesn't really understand what he's doing—King Kong is the one threatening Fay Wray to begin with (although he doesn't realize it), and Travis is doing the same thing to Betsy. He thinks she's a lonely person he wants to connect with, but he goes about interacting with her in a totally crazy way.
In the end, when he liberates Iris from her position as a child prostitute, he plays a still crazy but arguably more valorous role. Yeah, Iris certainly is better off in Pittsburgh with her parents than being essentially an underage sex slave. It's just that there was probably a more rational way of facilitating this than, say, a murder rampage. Like Kong, Travis' aggressive state of being prevents him from approaching things in a less lethal, more constructive frame of mind.
As he drives around the city, we hear Travis' musing in his diary:
"Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man."
As screenwriter Paul Schrader was aware, Travis didn't actually come up with the term "God's Lonely Man…"
It actually comes from the title of an essay by the great American author Thomas Wolfe, and Schrader included a quote from that essay at the beginning of his screenplay:
"The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence."
Travis, then, is a kind of archetype of the lonely person—he is "Man apart" as the poet James Wright phrased it. He's "God's lonely man" but his defining quality is the fact that he embodies separation from God and humanity and pretty much everything except for his own sense of anger. He completely embodies loneliness as "the central and inevitable fact of human existence" and shows its awful consequences—a descent into madness and violence.
When Travis is sitting in the diner with the other drivers, they're telling him he should get a gun for his own protection. As we know, he definitely takes this advice… although he has more than his own protection in mind.
When his fellow cabbies are actually dishing out this advice, he seems kind of distracted, something the camera conveys. Particularly, Travis is entranced by the tab of Alka Seltzer fizzing in his glass.
(If you've never watched Alka Seltzer fizz in a glass of water, we totally recommend it. It's kind of like ye olde Pepsi-and-Mentos trick… except it can also help your tummy when it's upset.)
Why is Travis so mesmerized by the bubble action, though? Maybe this is because Travis is—like the Alka Seltzer—fizzing with anger and discontent on the inside? He's kind of at a simmer that will eventually come to a boil. The camera lingers on this image because it symbolizes Travis own inner state. While the cabbies are trying to talk with him and be normal and human and friendly, he's inwardly seething, and searching to find a target for his hidden rage.
As he tries to convince her to go out with him again, after that super-awk porn movie disaster, we can't hear her responses, but we understand that she—quite sensibly—isn't willing to go out with a guy who acted like a total creep on the first date. However, we're also meant to empathize with Travis because we understand how screwed up he is—we understand that he really isn't capable of interacting with humans in a reasonable way, and that's his tragedy. His entire spiel is desperate and still indicates he doesn't really understand what he did wrong:
"Hello Betsy. Hi, it's Travis. How ya doin'? Listen, uh, I'm, I'm sorry about the, the other night. I didn't know that was the way you felt about it. Well, I-I didn't know that was the way you felt. I-I-I would have taken you somewhere else. Uh, are you feeling better or oh you maybe had a virus or somethin', a 24-hour virus you know. It happens. Yeah, umm, you uh, you're workin' hard. Yeah. Uh, would you like to have, uh, some dinner, uh with me in the next, you know, few days or somethin'? Well, how about just a cup of coffee? I'll come by the, uh, headquarters or somethin', we could, uh... oh, okay, okay. Did you get my flowers in the...? You didn't get them? I sent some flowers, uh...Yeah, well, okay, okay. Can I call you again? Uh, tomorrow or the next day? Okay. No, I'm gonna... okay. Yeah, sure, Okay. So long."
As Travis gives this speech to her, the camera pans away from him and focuses on an empty hall—as Scorsese put it, the rejection is too painful to watch. Also, the empty hall is itself an image of urban loneliness, of New York desolation. When Travis finishes his phone call, he walks down that hall and into a deeper and even crazier form of loneliness.
When Iris tries to get in Travis' cab, Sport drags her out and throws a crinkled twenty-dollar bill to Travis. Apparently, this is meant to make sure Travis doesn't report the fact that Sport is forcing Iris to remain a child prostitute. Travis keeps the twenty and gives it to the brothel timekeeper after he visits Iris and tries to convince her to leave and go back to her parents.
It seems like the crinkled twenty symbolizes a particularly repulsive strain of corruption and evil. Sport is pimping a twelve-year-old girl, an unambiguously evil act, and for what? Money, of course.
That's what the crinkled twenty is—the root of all evil. Travis keeps it and gives it back to the timekeeper because he's rejecting it. Even though he embraces violence and his own form of nihilistic evil—the kind that leads him to almost assassinate Charles Palantine—Travis hates the corruption and exploitation that Sport represents.
Travis is violent because he's going crazy; Sport is violent because he's morally bankrupt… and sane. Sport's a symptom of the city's own insanity, its money-based depravity, which enrages and repulses Travis—especially when it's used to exploit an innocent kid, like Iris.
Travis' apartment is uber-depressing for all sorts of reasons, but we have to say his artwork choice is one of the bleakest aspects of his whole décor scheme. He has a poster in his room saying, "One of these days I'm gonna get organ-iz-ized!" with the letters of "organiz-iz-ed" falling off a ledge. Underneath it, he has a "We the People" Charles Palantine poster.
C'mon, Travis. We just know that a nice van Gogh print would cheer you up… or would it make you cut your ear off? (There's no telling with this guy.)
Let's get back to the posters at hand: Travis does want to get organiz(iz)ed—but he ends up doing it in a basically crazy, mentally un-organized way. He starts getting in shape, training his body—but he's preparing himself for a rampage. He's becoming organized in one sense—curls for girls, amirite?—but in another, he's internally falling into disorder.
The Palantine poster seems to be a little ironic. Originally, Travis might have put it up because he really did support Palantine (albeit just because of Betsy). Later in the movie, though, it seems to be there because it represents something he hates. He might be using it to motivate his rage.
As Travis goes crazier and crazier (and crazier), he starts watching TV while holding his gun. At one point, he's watching the show American Bandstand, which used to play pop hits while people danced to them. In the middle of the dance floor, we can see a pair of empty shoes, as Jackson Browne's song "Late for the Sky" plays, containing the lyrics: "Such an empty surprise to feel so alone" and "How long have I been drifting alone through the night?"
Both the song and the empty shoes demonstrate Travis' own sense of loneliness and non-being. He's not present in his life, at all—like the pair of empty shoes, he feels like he's in the midst of a world where people like Betsy and Tom are connecting, while he remains alone or invisible. He's not going to participate in the dance of life—instead, he's going to react with anger and vengeance, refusing to join in the dance, and trying to murder his way out of his despair.
Travis sends an anniversary card to his parents. Aww!
Hmm. Maybe we should rephrase that. Travis sends an anniversary card full of lies to his parents. Aww… eewgh. That went from cute to depressing real fast.
Comically, the picture on the front of the card depicts two scouts with the words "To a Couple of Good Scouts!" In the message he writes, he tries to convince them he's all right, while getting the date of Father's Day wrong (it's June 19th, kids—make sure to pick him up something nice):
"Dear Father and Mother:
July is the month I remember which brings not only your wedding anniversary but also Father's Day and Mother's birthday. I'm sorry I can't remember the exact dates, but I hope this card will take care of them all. I'm sorry again I cannot send you my address like I promised to last year. But the sensitive nature of my work for the government demands utmost secrecy. I know you will understand. I am healthy and well and making lots of money. I have been going with a girl for several months and I know you would be proud if you could see her. Her name is Betsy but I can tell you no more than that... I hope this card finds you all well as it does me. I hope no one has died. Don't worry about me. One day, there'll be a knock on the door and it'll be me.
This shows just how out of touch Travis is with everything and everyone. He doesn't know the day of his mother's birthday, he's lying about dating Betsy and working for the government, and he might even be planning on committing a murderous suicide mission at this point (in which case the promise that "there'll be a knock on the door and it'll be me" is a lie). The card itself is a grotesquely comic symbol of Travis' own delusion—it's an attempt to retain a connection with his parents, at least, but this is a connection based on lies.
Nowadays, it's pretty standard for a desperate guy in a movie to shave his head or give himself a hairstyle that involves shaving at least part of his head—think Richie Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums. That's largely thanks to Taxi Driver.
When Travis decides to assassinate Charles Palantine, he shows up at the rally with a Mohawk (almost definitely a Mohawk he gave himself—it doesn't look like a professional job).
In Travis's mind, this new haircut probably signifies how he's been "reborn" as a cold-blooded killer. He's done with human connection and the search for love. Now, he's just an appetite for destruction. In this sense, it's kind of a parody of the way Buddhist monks shave their heads when they're entering a monastery—a way of symbolizing being reborn, since infants have hairless heads.
An actor friend of Scorsese's, Victor Magnota, actually suggested the Mohawk cut for Travis, based on the way certain soldiers in Vietnam cut their hair sometimes, when they were planning on going into crazy commando situations. This is equally appropriate since Travis is a Vietnam vet.
After Travis has killed three people, leaving Iris free to abandon her life as a twelve-year-old prostitute, he tries to kill himself, but—whoops—he's out of ammo. Wounded, he sits down on the couch and waits for the cops to arrive. When they do, he pretends to shoot himself in the head with his bloody fingers. The cops just look on, silently.
This isn't going to be much of a revelation, but this is meant to demonstrate that Travis is—crazy. (Shocker, we know!) We assume, since the cops see this, that he's going to go to prison or a mental hospital or something.
However, he… doesn't. We go from seeing Travis pretending to shoot himself to seeing Travis hailed as a hero, a noble vigilante. The image helps heighten the irony of this transition.
At the very end of the movie, after Travis gives Betsy a free ride in his cab, his eyes flash in the rearview mirror as an ominous noise sounds. That's it—that's the last we see of Travis.
According to Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, this indicates that we end where we began—with Travis driving around the streets of New York, observing things, stoking his rage. He's not better. He's still crazy, still judging the world from his rear view mirrors.
No one learned a lesson and nothing got better. People mistook Travis for a genuine hero—they didn't realize he almost assassinated a presidential candidate. Travis himself doesn't seem to have learned anything or gotten over his rage. How could he? No one knew what he was really up to in the first place.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
In Travis Bickle's case, this section should really be called "Anti-Hero's Journey"… When we first see Travis, he's a lonely and discontent Vietnam Vet, who becomes a taxi driver in order to make money at night when he's awake from insomnia.
His loneliness and unhappiness compound, as he notes the depravity and crime common in 1970s New York, and he hangs out in late night porno theaters. He's looking for an escape from his desperate world.
He finds that call to escape in the form of Betsy—a worker for Charles Palantine's presidential campaign. Observing her from his taxi, Travis imagines that she's an angel, untouched by the horrors of NYC, and the right person to save him from his own despair.
At the same time that he's fantasizing about Betsy, disturbing things keep happening—he claims he needs to clean out blood and semen from the back seat of his taxi when he returns it to the garage.
Travis pulls up outside campaign headquarters all the time, but doesn't go inside. He just watches Betsy through the window. At one point, Betsy's co-worker Tom goes outside to talk to Travis—since Betsy's noticed him watching her—but Travis peels out, speeding away. He hasn't yet worked up the courage to go inside and talk to her.
Travis meets up with other cab drivers—Wizard, Charlie T, and Dough Boy—at a diner. They give him advice on how to deal with being a cab driver, but Travis doesn't seem all that attentive. For instance, Dough Boy and Wizard discuss the benefits of carrying a gun for self-protection, advice that Travis later will take, but for sick reasons—he's thinking about doing a lot more than protecting himself.
At one point, Travis actually turns to Wizard for advice, but Wizard's well-intentioned yet rambling speech doesn't offer any serious help (although Wizard acts compassionately, telling him to relax and assuring him that everything will be okay).
When Travis finally does talk to Betsy things start to go improbably well—she agrees to get something to eat with him, and they seem to hit it off, despite Travis' odd way of talking about things. Unfortunately, Travis decides to take her to a porn movie on their first date—which turns off Betsy and immediately ruins their prospects for any kind of future.
Later, over the phone, Betsy refuses to go out on another date with Travis. Strangely enough, this puts him on the anti-hero's journey in a big way—having failed to connect with another person, he's ready to lash out against humanity.
After cursing Betsy out at campaign headquarters and causing a scene, Travis starts to go increasingly crazy. He buys a ton of illegal guns from a black market gun salesman and practices drawing them over and over again in his room. Eventually, he finds an opportunity to actually use one of those guns, shooting a robber who was trying to hold up a local convenience store.
At the same time, he meets a twelve-year-old prostitute named Iris who he wants to free from her pimp, Sport, and he also starts to fantasize about assassinating Charles Palantine.
Travis personally seeks out Iris and urges her to leave her pimp, offering to give her money to escape. Simultaneously, he's scoping out Palantine rallies, thinking about shooting the potential nominee. Enjoying the risk, he even chats up a Secret Service agent, claiming he saw some suspicious people around and acting like he would like to be a Secret Service agent too.
When Travis finally decides to do it, he sends money to Iris with a note saying he'll be dead by the time she receives it, shaves his head (leaving a Mohawk top), and heads down to a Palantine rally. However, as he tries to draw his gun, he gets spotted by the Secret Service, and runs away—escaping successfully.
Now, he has to recalibrate—how should he express his rage and insanity? Assassinating Palantine is out, so he decides to kill Sport (Iris' pimp) and a couple other gangster-ish guys in the process.
Travis embarks on his murder rampage, taking a couple bullets in the process. He murders Sport with multiple gunshots, kills the gangster-john visiting Iris, and blows the fingers off the brothel time-keeper before stabbing him through the hand and blowing his brains out.
Having finished off these unsavory characters, leaving Iris sobbing and scared, Travis tries to shoot himself—but he's out of ammo. The shocked cops who arrive on the scene confront a crazy-looking Travis pretending to shoot himself with his own fingers.
However—surprise! Travis is hailed as a hero. Everyone in New York was pretty fed up with crime, so the newspapers all view him as a hero for rescuing a child prostitute instead of a dangerous and mentally unstable murderer.
Iris' parents take her back to their home in Pittsburgh and send a note to Travis (who's been in a coma recovering from his wounds) thanking him for rescuing her. Against all apparent odds, Travis' rampage didn't land him in prison, and instead, elevated him.
Having come out of his coma, we see Travis interacting with the other cab drivers in a normal way, and then Betsy stops by and takes a ride in Travis' cab. She's curious to see what's going on with him, and says she read about him in the newspaper. Travis says he feels okay—"just a little stiffness."
When he drops her off, he insists on giving her a free ride and won't let her pay the fare. He's not angry with her or anything, so maybe this is a new Travis? Maybe he's got all the rage out of his system?
As Travis drives off into the night, an ominous noise sounds and his eyes flash in the rear view mirror. That's really the last we see of him, but what does it mean? According to Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese, this is meant to indicate that he's still carrying his rage with him, surveying the city streets in anger.
Travis isn't better, then, and the fact that his act of rage was interpreted as an act of heroism makes it less likely that he'll get the treatment or maybe even the basic human connection that he needs. He hasn't brought an elixir of enlightened understanding with him out of his ordeal—he's brought an elixir of boiling rage, which will continue to heat until it overflows in an act of potentially worse violence. (At least that's one way of interpreting the ending).
"Welcome to New York… It's Been Waiting for You!" – Taylor Swift
The setting is New York but it feels like it's hell—or, at least, Hades. Through Travis Bickle's eyes, NYC is a sinful nightmare full of animals, terrible people bent on destroying innocence.
It's kind of a cliché to say that "[Name of place] is like a character in this movie!" but New York really is like a character in Taxi Driver. It's an evil, evil, sketchy character. In a sense, it's Travis Bickle's main antagonist, even more than Sport the pimp (since Sport just crystallizes everything Travis already hates about the city).
In the mid-1970's, when the movie was made, New York (and the rest of the country) were in the middle of a crime and murder wave. Time Square wasn't yet the family friendly home to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant or the Hershey Chocolate store—it was basically a giant clot of porn theaters full of illegal activity (it was cleaned up in the early-mid nineties, and went from being one of the worst parts of the city to a part that's fairly safe). The fact that the movie was shot during a heat wave and a garbage workers' strike, with trash piling up on the streets, probably helped bring out the gritty horror and sense of total madness.
Early in the movie, the personnel officer at the taxi company asks Travis if he's willing to drive in Harlem and the South Bronx—two high crime areas in the 1970's. Travis says he's willing to work "anytime, anywhere"—he'll go there. However, he goes there only to fuel his anger with the poverty and crime he witnesses.
For instance, there's a scene where he sees some kids harassing a woman in one of these areas. We also hear some out-and-out racism in the way the other taxi drivers talk—when Travis says that a driver got cut up at 122nd street (which is in Harlem) Wizard responds, "f***in' Mau Mau land." (The Mau Mau Uprising was a rebellion in Kenya in which African rebels killed British colonists.)
In the original script, Travis was essentially a racist—everyone he killed in the final scene, including Sport, was supposed to be black. However, Scorsese wisely changed this, in order to avoid the impression that the movie itself had a racist message. Nonetheless, we can still see elements of this in Travis' attitudes towards the African-American parts of New York—like when he gets distracted by some African-American pimps in the diner where he's hanging out with the other taxi drivers and stares at them.
Locations in Time Square are also featured in the movie. Travis drives by the Terminal Bar—a famously rough dive bar—and hangs out in Time Square porn theaters. (He tries to hit on the concession girl at one of these theaters, but we get the sense that she has to deal with guys like this all the time.)
None of these locations inspires any genuine affection in Travis, obviously—especially because the porno theater date turns out to be the nail in the coffin of Travis' and Betsy's fledgling relationship. The effect of these neon-lit mini-settings is to add to the sense of desperation and emptiness that pervades the movie.
Travis' apartment is another location in the movie that heightens a sense of despair and emptiness. It's small, but, hey, that could describe pretty much any apartment in NYC, and totally bleak. Also, the room where he visits Iris has an unusual vibe—it's technically not very nice at all, but it has lots of candles burning in it. Maybe this is because Travis views Iris as an almost religious symbol of abandoned innocence?
Travis sums up his feelings about his environment in a speech he gives when he picks Charles Palantine up in his cab:
"Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It's full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. Whatever-whoever becomes the President should just [Travis honks the horn] really clean it up. You know what I mean? Sometimes I go out and I smell it, I get headaches it's so bad, you know... They just never go away you know... It's like... I think that the President should just clean up this whole mess here. You should just flush it right down the f***in' toilet."
That's how Travis feels about his environment—it's an abomination, and there's no solution but to destroy it. By the time the movie ends, there's no real indication that he feels any different.
Because Taxi Driver delves so intimately into Travis Bickle's world, it feels like this film is being told in the first person. In reality, there are a few scenes that stray away from a first person perspective—we see some things and hear some things that Travis couldn't really see or hear, like when Sport and Iris are talking alone and dancing together, or when Tom and Betsy are flirtatiously chatting.
The first person perspective (or almost first person perspective) helps us really dive into Travis' mind as it goes crazier and crazier. It also forces us to empathize with him—whether we want to or not—because we see the full arc of his story. We understand that his loneliness is real and that he takes Betsy to a porn movie because he really is that clueless and socially unskilled. His isolation is inevitable and terrible.
As he goes crazier and becomes truly dangerous, we can't really hate him… even as he starts saying things like:
"The idea had been growing in my brain for some time. True force. All the king's men cannot put it back together again."
We're forced to see things the way he sees them—all the depravity and insanity of the city—which is disturbing and uncomfortable. We're not meant to agree with Travis, obviously, but we can't just dismiss him. He's the symptom of a loveless society.
Taxi Driver isn't a thriller like other thrillers: There's not a ticking time bomb hidden somewhere in the city… because the ticking time bomb is the main character. The suspense doesn't come from a chase or a spy battle. It comes from watching the main character descend into insanity.
We see how Travis' attempts to find love go horribly wrong, and we see how he reacts to that rejection and to his inability to navigate his environment emotionally. The "thrilling" stuff (which is really more like "chilling stuff") comes when we think Travis is going to go full-villain and shoot Palantine, and when he kills Sport and a couple of gangsters. We're left in a state of suspense when the movie ends, since we don't know whether he'll recover psychologically or not.
The movie's also a bit of a film noir, since it deals with crime in a dark, gritty urban environment… although there are no Maltese Falcon-style jaded detectives or moody femme fatales. As Travis drives around New York, and deals with criminals like Sport or with crazy people like the sick passenger who wants to kill his wife, he risks becoming more criminal and crazy himself. The city eats at his soul. There's lots of literal darkness in this movie, too: lots of shadows.
Finally, Taxi Driver's a slice-of-life movie, capturing some of the genuine reality of New York City in the 1970's. For a lot of people, the Big Apple simply was not a nice place. Crime was ballooning, it was economically downtrodden—if you weren't safely ensconced at the top of a skyscraper, you were scraping along, running the risk of encountering violence.
Taxi drivers, in particular, were frequently at risk, since their whole job involves picking up strangers. (This is reflected in the scene where Travis tells the other drivers how he heard another driver just got "cut up" by a madman.) Other movies from the time period, like the classic Midnight Cowboy, deal with the same New York underworld in an effective and moving way—in Midnight Cowboy's case, by telling the story of a guy attempting to be a gigolo rather than a taxi driver.
This one's not exactly a puzzle: Taxi Driver is about a taxi driver. Simple. There's more to say than just that, though…
As a taxi driver, Travis gets to see a lot of New York—and he doesn't like what he sees. He also lives an isolated existence, thanks, in part, to his job. Even though he can talk with his passengers, his connections are all fleeting. He doesn't have any stable relationships in his life: Travis' parents are apparently back in the Midwest, and based on the anniversary card he sends them, it doesn't seem like they've been in touch in a very pronounced way.
He becomes "God's lonely man" then, drifting around, longing for connection when he's not raging against the world around him. His occupation helps condition his character and determines the way he relates to the world (even though Travis' brand of madness isn't shared by most taxi drivers, obviously).
At the end of the movie, Travis has missed his chance to assassinate Charles Palantine and secure a place for himself as one of the great villains of American history. Instead, he puts his anger to arguably better use, going on a murder rampage and killing Sport and two other gangsters involved in controlling prostitution. It's really, really bloody—Travis shoots off fingers and stabs a guy through the hand before blowing his brains all over the wall. Wounded, Travis tries to kill himself, but has no bullets left.
Instead, he winds up in a coma, before waking up a hero. The newspapers, not to mention Iris' parents, view him as a heroic liberator of a child prostitute—which is the external truth and not the violent, inner truth about his madness. He even gets to give Betsy a ride in his cab, before leaving her behind. In the last moments of the movie, we see Travis' eyes flash in his rear view mirror, accompanied by a strange noise.
Did this heroic reception really happen? Is it just Travis' fantasy? That's what some people claim, considering that it seems unrealistic that he wouldn't face some sort of criminal penalty for a triple murder (even if the three guys involved were pretty bad). These critics imagine Travis went crazy or had some sort of dying dream about what he would've liked to happen.
However, that's not what the filmmakers themselves thought about the ending. Scorsese and Schrader intended the audience to believe that Travis really was greeted as a hero, with the city's madness and desire for vengeance against bad guys like Sport equaling or exceeding Travis' own madness. Schrader said it's not a dream sequence, but it ends where it began, with Travis driving around the city and fueling his hate, waiting to let it build up and explode again.
When Taxi Driver aired on TV, the filmmakers added an unexplained disclaimer to the broadcast:
To our Television Audience:
In the aftermath of violence, the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes a matter of interpretation or misinterpretation of facts. Taxi Driver suggests that tragic errors can be made.
This seems to buffer the idea that society misunderstood Travis' actions and couldn't see the troubled person behind them.
Critics have felt similarly. James Berardinelli points out that, if it isn't a dream sequence, it adds an important piece of irony to the movie: Travis would've been a villain if he'd shot Palantine, but is a hero because he ended up killing gangsters.
Roger Ebert says he's not sure we can say what happened at the end—whether it's fantasy or dream—but that it completes the movie on an "emotional level" and leads to a redemptive arc experienced by many Scorsese characters (if Travis really is redeemed).
A bloody massacre, fingers shot off, a twelve-year-old prostitute, F-words, the C-word, the N-word, a knife through the hand, clips from porn movies… Taxi Driver has it all.
And, naturally, it has an R rating, having just managed to avoid an X rating when Scorsese made the blood in the last scene look less bright. Really, this is one of the classic, groundbreaking movies for ultra-violence in cinema, along with flicks like The Wild Bunch and A Clockwork Orange.