The Masculine Oversight of ‘Taxi Driver’

Martin Scorsese crafted a man’s world in his 1976 breakthrough only to expertly — and importantly — tear it down from within.
Taxi Driver
Columbia Pictures
By  · Published on May 16th, 2019

Despite being daringly grisly, the sheer craft of Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver is undeniable. This confronting staple of 1970s cinema is indeed profoundly harrowing and violent. But Taxi Driver isn’t simply empty, angry savagery. There is a richness to the film’s aesthetic and complex narrative choices that makes it a hallmark of the cinematic canon.

Taxi Driver follows protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), an honorably discharged Marine who suffers from chronic insomnia and experiences increasing alienation from stereotypical Americana. The more he witnesses instances of greed, excess, and misogyny on his runs as a nightly cab driver, the more disgust he feels about having to share New York City with the “scum” of society.

The film acts as both a close character study and sharp indictment of Bickle’s stunted presumptions of ideal manhood. On the surface, Taxi Driver constructs and upholds the archetype of the lonely antihero, highlighting themes of justice, isolation, and personal identity through a markedly masculine lens. The combination of Scorsese’s directorial decisions, Paul Schrader‘s first-rate screenplay, Michael Chapman‘s game-changing cinematography, and Bernard Herrmann‘s moody, mesmerizing score congruously portrays Bickle as a representative of American individualism railing against a corrupt hivemind.

But further examination of Taxi Driver reveals that the film challenges this very image of aspirational masculinity, as well. Bickle is established to be a loose cannon and, to use Scorsese’s own words, a “ticking time bomb,” regardless of whether he is also presumably sympathetic.

Taxi Driver makes this evident through Bickle’s ignorance of communities that do not fit his narrow, lonely world view. To focus on just one of his blind spots, though, the movie particularly infuses his blatant misunderstanding of gender with loaded implications.

Taxi Driver often encourages audiences to empathize with Bickle’s fluctuating emotional and mental state. However, viewers are tasked to confront his own reinforcement of toxic masculinity, too. We’re initially clued into this by way of Bickle’s exploitative gaze on the women around him.

Before he really interacts with any female characters on screen, the fact that he frequents pornography theaters as a way to deal with his insomnia is a red flag. Despite relentlessly railing against the apparent “moral depravity” of sex work, calling its facilitators “lowlifes” and the like, Bickle views so many adult films that he is desensitized to their effects. As both fervent consumer and adamant detractor, he doesn’t exactly have the strongest ethics.

This already hints at Bickle’s inclination to primarily view women for their perceived “function” in his personal narrative. His attendance at a particular movie screening points this out as he misreads obvious social cues. Before entering the theater, Bickle stops by the concessions counter. Rather than simply placing his order politely and moving on, he opts to pester the woman working there with extraneous questions that she is clearly uninterested in. Bickle adopts a casual, friendly attitude. Still, he asks her for her name so many times that she threatens to alert her manager of his inappropriate behavior. Finally, he awkwardly relents.

Bickle’s substantive experiences with other female characters later on in Taxi Driver only follows an increasingly destructive path. First, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) comes into Bickle’s life and he is immediately infatuated with the confident and cosmopolitan presidential campaign volunteer.

Blonde-haired and dressed in white, “she appeared like an angel out of this filthy mass,” Bickle muses when Betsy first comes into view in an almost romantic slow-motion sequence. This soon gives way to his discomfiting reverence of her; something that quickly devolves into something more obsessive.

His subsequent easy connection with Betsy can seem inexplicable, especially as we’re fully aware of his potentially creepy mindset. After all, Betsy proves to be perceptive enough, having noticed Bickle spying on her from his cab even before he gets up the nerve to talk to her.

Nonetheless, Bickle amplifies different aspects of his disjointed, drifting personality depending on what he believes Betsy would relate to. This includes emulating codes of conventional masculinity (“I’m there to protect you”), although that kind of cheese and charm hardly works on her.

In the end, Bickle’s surprising frankness is what makes him really stand out. His attempts to identify Betsy’s own desire for human connection are definitely brazen, but that kind of honest shrewdness evidently lets her feel seen. Thus, she tentatively agrees to go out with him.

Their first date that goes relatively smoothly, barring a palpable sense of awkwardness when it comes to small talk. Betsy recognizes a contrariness about Bickle and finds him fascinating for it, even if he really doesn’t share her worldlier interests.

Unfortunately, their follow-up date to the movie theater goes absolutely awry. Bickle takes Betsy to a porn film, which makes her so uncomfortable that she leaves in disgust partway through. Bickle chases after her in bemused detachment, claiming he wasn’t aware of what she would have liked to see instead.

Bickle’s utter bewilderment at Betsy’s reaction displays a lack of tact that offends the latter further. “We’re different,” she shortly insists as she goes home alone and proceeds to ignore his pleas for reconciliation in the days following their date.

Frustrated, Bickle eventually storms into the campaign offices one last time, demanding an explanation from Betsy. He is only met with silence, which visibly crushes him as he becomes more and more irate. Bickle had once assumed that he’d found a kindred spirit in Betsy, someone who seemed to stand above the rest of the purported scummy society he so fervently despised. Now that she has apparently retreated into it instead, he becomes cruel, proclaiming, “You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna die in a hell like the rest. You’re like the rest of them!”

Sometime after Betsy’s rejection, Bickle has his next fateful meeting when he almost runs over 12-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) while in his cab. That said, this isn’t the first time they have crossed paths. Earlier in the film, Iris had hastily climbed into the back of Bickle’s taxi and implored that he help her escape from her abusive pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).

While that particular ploy was ultimately unsuccessful, Bickle now watches Iris walking the dark streets and becomes unduly determined to protect a young girl from New York’s underbelly; to redeem another “fallen woman.” Iris is clearly in danger, sharing the sidewalk with hooligans who run around shouting sexist slurs and promises of murder. Yet before long, she picks up another client and Bickle loses sight of her as he speeds away in disgust.

Bickle’s coincidental run-in with Iris is but one of the catalysts precipitating his final explosive actions. He tends to happen upon some particularly nasty passengers in his cab over the course of the movie, many of whom reflect deeply misogynistic worldviews, and each experience only sows the seeds of self-righteousness.

This encourages Bickle to set up a meeting with “traveling salesman” “Easy” Andy to purchase firearms. He starts intensive physical training in his apartment, as well, beginning his transformation from detached regular Joe to full-blown vigilante.

During this process, he tries to convince Iris to leave Sport’s prostitution ring on several occasions, even going so far as to hire her in order to facilitate that crucial private conversation. What’s most noteworthy about their scenes together is how much they mirror Bickle’s interactions with Betsy.

His intention of satiating a savior complex mostly remain the same. He rehashes the same persuasive tactics he once used on Betsy, giving Iris her own mildly aggressive spiel about morality at one point. And Iris isn’t obtuse to Bickle’s strangeness, either. Her wit is comparable to Betsy’s intuitive observations, which also contradictorily becomes the reason she bonds with Bickle in the first place.

However, in contrast to Betsy’s innate self-assurance and the relative empowerment in her traditionally respectable job in politics, the abuse and exploitation of a child naturally engender more urgency in both Bickle and the audience. Set against the backdrop of a seedy bordello crawling with creeps, it is far easier to root for Bickle when he expresses concern for Iris. What is previously easily branded as creepy behavior — such as constantly badgering for Iris’ real name at one point — just seems warranted.

Moreover, audiences are made aware of Iris’ actual listlessness and desire to be free of her abuse. She is visibly moved Bickle’s care for her well-being, too, and discusses running away with him with a kind of child-like wonder that’s both sweet and heartbreaking.

Of course, Bickle doesn’t actually overcome his thirst to prove himself a worthy man above the masses. He is wont to overstep boundaries in his quest for justice. Bickle’s final showdown at Sport’s brothel sees him brutally kill the pimp alongside the building’s bouncer and Iris’ latest mafioso customer.

The iconic desaturated shootout sequence occurs fairly quickly despite being depicted in slow-motion. The bloody carnage that it leaves behind is almost revered by camera work that slowly sweeps across blood-splattered walls and indistinguishable human remains; a gory affirmation of Bickle’s “heroic” mission fulfilled. Predictably, the inherent duality of Taxi Driver prevents audiences from drawing such simplistic conclusions. The film includes a controversial denouement indicating that Bickle’s nightmarish existence will never reach absolution.

In what is possibly the dreamiest sequence of the film — one so apparently disconnected from the rest of Taxi Driver‘s timeline that various critics have construed it to be pure hallucination — Bickle comes full circle. He saved Iris, returning her home to very grateful parents, and is now celebrated as a local hero. A partially contrite Betsy even ends up as one of his cab customers, allowing him to walk away a bigger man from a level-headed do-over of their final conversation.

However, we’re not meant to forget the troubling aftermath of Bickle’s unhinged shootout any time soon, least of all when the child he supposedly does it for is actually last seen to be deeply traumatized. Taxi Driver‘s ending portrays this brand of individualist vigilantism in a rather critical light.

Regardless of the film’s intimate and at times twisted understanding of Bickle’s plight, it determines that he reflects the foulness of a world he openly eschews. His relationships with women are formulaic, few and far between for a reason. They ultimately reveal something crucial about his — and society’s — deteriorating identity; namely, a noticeable internal decay as a result of idealized masculinity.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)