Taxi Driver Analysis
Taxi Driver (1976), written by Paul Schroeder and directed by Marin Scorsese, depicts Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) descending into violent psychosis. The film is praised for its deep character study of a person failing to socialize. Throughout the film, Travis attempts to develop relations with two women, Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) and Iris (Jodie Foster), and fails in both cases. Analysis of these relationships is important to understand Travis’s psyche and motivation behind his actions. It shows that his inability to establish connection with other people, women in particular, can be explained by his lack of understanding of the human behavior inner workings.
When the audience first meets Travis Bickle, he is being hired for the job of a taxi driver. Such a choice of employment is not accidental as driving a taxi requires communicating with other people, even if short and accidental. This choice can be explained by Travis’s desperate attempts to socialize and to end his loneliness. At the same time, brief contacts with his passengers and co-workers are not real communication but rather its substitution. The same can be said about Travis’s visit to a pornographic theater, watching of couples dancing or soap operas on TV, and his overall voyeuristic behavior. Many times during the film, the audience can see Travis observing lives of the others instead of trying to live his own life. Not surprisingly, his first acquaintances with two important female characters in the film start with stalking.
Later, Travis is shown in his dirty apartment. Looking at that place, it is obvious that he suffers from loneliness, which further increases his dislocation from reality into psychosis. It is clear without explanation that Travis struggles to find his place in the society after returning from the Vietnam War (which he mentions briefly during his job interview). However, watching life on TV and from a distance cannot fill Travis’s lack of social skills. He feels uncomfortable even in the company of his marginal co-workers, and, unsurprisingly, his attempts to find a female partner end with tragic results.
Notably, Betsy and Iris are not the first women Travis makes an effort to connect with. At the beginning of the film, he tries to awkwardly flirt with a clerk in a pornographic cinema theater, which, beyond doubt, ends with a failure. The above-mentioned scene proves that Travis desires to bring an end to his loneliness and find someone to relate to. Further, Travis writes a post-card to his parents, where he lies about having relationships with Betsy. Thus, his wish to find a mate can be explained by his obligation to fulfill a traditional social contract, which requires creating a family. Perhaps, Travis supposes that such a step could fill the void of loneliness in his life, or just wants to follow the example set by his parents. Travis’s failure in his attempts to do that can be explained not by his lack of desire but his inability to understand how social communication functions in the first place. Such an ignorance is vividly expressed in his further attempts to communicate with other female characters.
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First, Betsy becomes Travis’s obsession. He stalks her during her working hours and soon starts to idealize her. As he knows nothing about her real character, Travis creates a perfect image of Betsy and is disappointed when she eventually does not meet his expectations. For Travis, his image of Betsy is a contrast with dark and dirty reality he encounters every day. Thus, his attempts to get to know Betsy are set to be a disaster as no real person can meet created image.
During the first meeting, Travis shows his fake positive side: he is persistent and charming in his own way. Even during their first conversation in the café, it becomes evident that Travis’s attraction to Betsy is somewhat unhealthy as he is instantly aggressively jealous. Still, Betsy shows initial interest in Travis, which can be explained by her naivety or sheer curiosity. However, Travis’s true face reveals during their first date as he takes Betsy to his favorite pornographic theater. While Betsy’s reaction is what was expected, it is important to understand that Travis is not intended to seduce her in such a perverted manner. This scene rather demonstrates how distant he is from the reality. In Travis’s mind, there is nothing wrong in taking a woman to watch such a film since he has seen couples doing so. Once again, it proves that Travis simply tries to copy the behavior of “normal” people without understanding of how it work. These attempts are sincere and innocent, what makes his failure even more awkward.
When failing to act like other people, Travis reduces to his normal sociopathic behavior of stalking and threatening. At the end of the film, when Travis receives his status of a hero, Betsy again tries to meet with him; however, Travis rejects her, as his delusional perception has been already broken. For him, Betsy is just like the others. Once image of Betsy ceased to exist, Travis lost his interest in her. As it is impossible to create relationships based on something that does not exist, this connection is doomed from the start.
As mentioned by Waldemar Pauw, the relationship between Travis and Iris mirror his previous unsuccessful romance with Betsy (Pauw). They start with Travis stalking her, continue with Travis idealizing the teenage prostitute and end with rejection, although less dramatic and awkward. Once again, Travis tries to project his distorted idealistic perception of normal family onto a young girl tricked into prostitution by a fast-talking pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). Travis makes an effort to dissuade Iris from her life on the streets and convince her to return to the parents. Finally, he makes a decision for her by murdering criminals involved in prostitution business during a violent spree. Surprisingly, Travis is treated as a hero and even receives a letter with gratitude from Iris’s parents. Notably, there is no a single word from Iris herself as she is probably traumatized by witnessing a bloody crime.
Generally, Travis and Iris do have much in common since they share a marginalized way of life. Travis succeeds in attempt to reach her having persuaded her to think of leaving the streets. However, other “father figure,” Sport, stands between Iris and Travis. As the pimp has more influence on the girl, Travis decides to fight this rival in the only effective way he knows – by violence. However, even without the interference of Sport, Iris never sees Travis as more than another obsessive client. Thus, despite Travis’s attempts to create relationships with her by becoming a moral guide or a substitute for the father, they have no perspective as the taxi driver is ignorant about peculiarities of human behavior.
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In conclusion, Travis Bickle is a fascinating example of a sociopathic character. He exists in his own perception of reality filled with hate and idealism drawn from fiction and the influence of his parents. Supposedly deeply traumatized by his war experience, he desperately tries to socialize due to his painful loneliness. His attempts to relate to two women, who do not reject him instantly, are destined to fail since he does not understand the mechanics of human relationships and acts upon what he has learned from TV and his personal delusions. Through his interactions with these characters, the viewer can understand how Travis sees the world, and how his perception of reality collides with the real world around him.