Normally these days when we’re talking about a character study it isn’t a character study film anymore. Instead, it’s more of a character-driven story where we slowly embody the character to focus on the screen. Examples? Take a look at Jim Jarmusch ‘Paterson’ (2016) or Todd Phillips ‘Joker’ (2019) where the large chunks of inspiration take from his mentor’s project we’re going to discuss here ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976). Those films do focus on the characters that made up the portion of the story. Yet somehow we do mostly understand the character’s motivation, how they end up in life, and other information because we had become the character. Not on this film’s main character where most hail it as Martin Scorsese’s best work.
Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) is a 26 year-old former U.S. marine who was given an honorable discharge in May 1973. He had clean records (including medical) and claimed himself that he had “not much” education. But that’s all the information he ever told to his employer (and the audience). It’s been almost half a century since the film’s release and considering the time of release, the publication interpretation is understandable. But there is no explanation where he served and if he had any PTSD. Yet it seems the audience just goes with the flow that he served in the Vietnam War and had medical conditions in the midst of ambiguity.
Later Travis would explain why he took the night shift taxi driver to cope with his chronic insomnia. With the habit of visiting porn theaters and writing diaries where he would include aphorisms, we the audience hope that this job would bring him back out from his isolation and loneliness. Yet there seems to be no rays of hope for him to find salvation through this job. In contrast, he plummets more to the dark hole, hoping to sanitate the streets filled with dirty people. But never could understand him, all we could do was watch him in sympathy.
There are several occasions where Travis would try to establish connection outside of his job but this seems to never work as well. Take Betty (Cybill Shepherd) for example, a presidential campaign worker that Travis sets his eyes on. Every dialogue they throw seems to never click with each other. Or when he ask advice to his co-worker ‘Wizard’ (Peter Boyle). We know as an audience that he had a problem. But he seems never to express it fully, watching him suffering uncomfortably as ‘Wizard’ telling him that everything is going to be fine.
That’s the charm of ‘Taxi Driver’. We never could understand Travis fully. We’re really actually put in the audience chair, never to reach the level of empathy. There’s no mutual understanding the audience had to Travis. All we could do is to sit and watch him miserably turn into an imaginary savior as he drew a gun to the mirror, hoping to be recognized by others. Perhaps the only time we could understand his motivation is when he snapped back to his morality to save child prostitute Iris Steensma (Jodie Foster). But the rest is all up to us being a psychiatrist watching our own patient through invisible cameras.
Maybe the reason why this film got us so much is due to the fact it comes from screenwriter Paul Scharadder’s own experience. The loneliness, the feeling of wanting to connect but pushing people more to the edge is something we all could sympathize with. And don’t forget how Robert de Niro just pulled one of the most complex characters in cinema’s history with the help of Scorsese’s direction. It’s nearly perfect in every aspect and perhaps there will be almost no character study film that ever came close to ‘Taxi Driver’ again.