We begin the movie with an introduction to Bickle's world view, a close up on his eyes in red light, while soothing music plays, interspersed with the world out the windshield, which is little more than bright and busy lights scored by the more ominous music of building drums.
We find Travis interviewing for a job at a cab company. His interviewer clearly suspects his and possibly anyone's motives for wanting to drive a cab.
Personnel Officer: So whaddya want to hack for, Bickle?
Travis Bickle: I can't sleep nights.
Personnel Officer: There's porno theaters for that.
Travis Bickle: Yeah, I know, I tried that.
Personnel Officer: So now what do you do?
Travis Bickle: I ride around most nights - subways, buses - but you know, if I'm gonna do that I might as well get paid for it.
When asked about his driving record, Bickle says "It's clean, as clean as my conscience." He gives his education as "a little, here and there." and also states that he was honorably discharged from the Marines. The interviewer tells him to check back when the next shift starts. We next find Bickle at home in his apartment writing a letter, which he starts by thanking god "for the rain, which helps wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks." He states he's working long hours, six-seven days a week, and he's happy that this keeps him busy. He continues:
"All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take 'em to Harlem. I don't care. Don't make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won't even take spooks. Don't make no difference to me."
We see Travis pick up a businessman with a prostitute, who promises a big tip if "he does the right things." he tells us that every night he has to clean bodily fluids from the backseats of his cab. We see Travis popping pills after his shift before heading for a porno theater. He makes an advance at the girl selling refreshments the theater, who rejects him, threatening to call the manager. Resuming his letter, he says,
"The days go on and on... they don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people."
He then goes on to describe seeing Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) for the first time, at Palantine campaign headquarters. He sees her as angel appearing in the midst of the filth in the streets. We see Betsy at work for the Palantine campaign, stating to a coworker, "push the man first, then the issue." She points out that "the taxi driver" is staring at them through the window. He speeds of startled when Betsy puts her coworker up to confronting him.
Travis meets his his fellow drivers at a diner after a shift. While they're very friendly to him, he has a hard time staying socially engaged drifting off between comments, forcing them to repeat themselves to get an answer from him. They swap fare stories, and Travis mentions some news he heard about a cabbie getting cut. One of the drivers, noticing that Travis handles some rough neighborhoods tells him that if he ever needs a gun, he can get him a good deal. Travis declines and seems content to sit at the table drifting into his own thoughts.
Travis gets dressed up in nice clothes, and shows up at Palantine campaign headquarters, volunteering to work for Palantine's campaign, insisting that he speak directly to Betsy. When she questions him, finding he knows nothing about Palantine, Bickle tells her she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen, then continuing:
Bickle: I'll tell you why. I think you're a lonely person. I drive by this place a lot and I see you here. I see a lot of people around you. And I see all these phones and all this stuff on your desk. It means nothing. Then when I came inside and I met you, I saw in your eyes and I saw the way you carried yourself that you're not a happy person. And I think you need something. And if you want to call it a friend, you can call it a friend.
Betsy: Are you gonna be my friend?
She seems charmed by his unconventional approach and agrees to meet him for a cup of coffee at 4:00. They talk about Betsy's work and Travis brings up her coworker:
Bickle: I would say he has quite a few problems. His energy seems to go in the wrong places. When I walked in and I saw you two sitting there, I could just tell by the way you were both relating that there was no connection whatsoever. And I felt when I walked in that there was something between us. There was an impulse that we were both following. So that gave me the right to come in and talk to you. Otherwise I never would have felt that I had the right to talk to you or say anything to you. I never would have had the courage to talk to you. And with him I felt there was nothing and I could sense it. When I walked in, I knew I was right. Did you feel that way?
Betsy: I wouldn't be here if I didn't.
Coffee goes pretty well and Betsy seems fascinated with Travis. She agrees to go to a movie with him at another time, telling him before going back to work,
Betsy: You know what you remind me of?
Travis Bickle: What?
Betsy: That song by Kris Kristofferson.
Travis Bickle: Who's that?
Betsy: A songwriter. 'He's a prophet... he's a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.'
Travis Bickle: [uneasily] You sayin' that about me?
Betsy: Who else would I be talkin' about?
Travis Bickle: I'm no pusher. I never have pushed.
Betsy: No, no. Just the part about the contradictions. You are that.
Travis runs out to buy a Kris Kristofferson album, and looks forward to meeting Betsy for a movie. He happens to pick up Senator Palantine in his cab, and when Palantine asks him the one thing in the country that bugs him the most, he inspires a rant from Travis comparing the city to a cesspool.
An underage prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) gets in his cab to get away from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) who pulls her out of the cab, when Travis doesn't take off fast enough. Sport throws a bill onto his seay and tells him to forget about it. Travis meets Betsy, dressed up in a suit jacket and tie and reveals that the Kristofferson album was for Betsy. He surprises Betsy, by bringing her to a dirty movie. She attempts to sit through it, but leaves quickly, offended and not willing to talk about it. He calls her and finds she's not interested in seeing him at all. He sends her flowers which she won't accept and end up sitting in his own apartment. Desperate, he storms into Palantine headquarters only to be escorted out.
Travis picks up an odd fare, who has him park across the street from an apartment building so he can look at his wife in another man's window. The fare explains in detail that he's going to kill her, explaining what a 44 Magnum will do to a woman. This clearly rattles Travis. He meets with the other cabbies at the diner again, and he pulls "The Wizard" aside, looking for advice, stating he has some bad ideas in his head.
The Wizard: Look at it this way. A man takes a job, you know? And that job - I mean, like that - That becomes what he is. You know, like - You do a thing and that's what you are. Like I've been a cabbie for thirteen years. Ten years at night. I still don't own my own cab. You know why? Because I don't want to. That must be what I want. To be on the night shift drivin' somebody else's cab. You understand? I mean, you become - You get a job, you become the job. One guy lives in Brooklyn. One guy lives in Sutton Place. You got a lawyer. Another guy's a doctor. Another guy dies. Another guy gets well. People are born, y'know? I envy you, your youth. Go on, get laid, get drunk. Do anything. You got no choice, anyway. I mean, we're all fucked. More or less, ya know.
Travis Bickle: I don't know. That's about the dumbest thing I ever heard.
Wizard: It's not Bertrand Russell. But what do you want? I'm a cabbie. What do I know? I don't even know what the fuck you're talking about.
Travis Bickle: Maybe I don't know either.
Travis starts watching Palantine on TV at home, and continues looking in on campaign headquarters while driving by. He recognizes Iris on the street and starts following her, observing as she picks up a john before speeding off. His despair increases and he refers to himself as "God's lonely man." also commenting that "there is a change. Travis takes advantage of his fellow cabbie's offer to hook him up with a gun. Rather than choosing a gun, Travis takes all the guns the salesman shows him. He starts a meticulous workout program, stops eating junk food, getting himself "organized" for a mission taking shape in his mind. He practices pulling his guns in the mirror, and taping a knife to his boot. He chats with a Secret Service agent at a public appearance and practices, intimidating banter while now pointing his gun at Palantine posters. He defines his mission to himself:
"Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up."
Travis happens to be in a convenient store, when it's held up, and shoots the would be robber in the face. Concerned because he doesn't have a permit, the store owner takes the gun and beats the robber to death with a steel rod, telling Travis to take off. Travis starts watching TV with his gun in hand. He writes a card to his parents, claiming that he's working for the government and so can't reveal his address. He also claims he has a girlfriend named Betsy. Palantine's people are ramping up for a big appearance. Starting to feel edgy Travis kicks over his television. He sees Iris on the street again and this time approaches her. She directs him to "Matthew"(Sport) Sport takes him for a cop, but after talking comes to an agreement. Iris takes him to a room, but rather than have sex, he talks to her. He reminds her of the day she got in the cab trying to get away. He offers to help her get away, but she doesn't understand, explaining that she must have been stoned when she tried to get away. He asks to see her again in a non professional way and she agrees to breakfast tomorrow. At breakfast he tries to talk her into going back to her parents. Iris rebuffs him.
Iris: God, you're square.
Travis Bickle: Hey, I'm not square, you're the one that's square. Your full of shit, man. What are you talking about? You walk out with those fuckin' creeps and low-lifes and degenerates out on the streets and you sell your little pussy for peanuts? For some low-life pimp who stands in the hall? And I'm square? You're the one that's square, man. I don't go screwing fuck with bunch of killers and junkies like you do. You call that bein' hip? What world are you from?
Iris starts considering leaving, but insists that something must be done about Sport, so he can't do the same thing to other girls. Iris asks him to leave with her, to go to a commune in Vermont, but he says he wouldn't hang out with people like that. Travis tells her, that he's working for the government and may be going away for a while, but tells her he'll give her the money to go.
Iris confronts Sport, telling her she doesn't like what she's doing. Sport talks to her like she's his girlfriend, convincing her to stay. Travis starts to make final preparations, making up an envelope with money for Iris and burning all the dead flowers which came back from Betsy. He arrives at Palantine's big rally, and we see that Travis has shaved his head leaving only a mohawk. Pushing through the crowd to meet Palntine, he's spotted by the secret service agents just before he can pull out his gun. He runs back to his apartment and then heads out to see Sport. After having a few words, in which Sport claims he doesn't know and Iris. He shoots Sport and the man running the rooms where the girls take their Johns. Sport isn't dead however and runs up behind Travis in the hallway shooting him. Travis kills him and another man runs into the hall shooting Travis again, before Travis kills him too. Iris witnesses the whole scene. Travis tries to shoot himself, but finds he has no bullets left, so he sits and waits for the cops.
Travis battle with Sport, makes him a hero in the newspapers, and we hear Iris' parents lettter, thanking him for saving Iris and sending her home. Travis goes back to driving his cab, and ends up with Betsy as a fare. Betsy reveals that she read about him in the papers and downplays his ordeal. He lets her off, and when she asks about the fare, he takes off . We resume seeing the city from Travis' point of view as he drives off.
"Taxi Driver" is a brilliant character study. Scorsese does a brilliant job filtering the world through Bickle's eyes, while at the same time keeping the facts in the real world. We see what happens and then get Bickle's take on it. Scorsese makes the world very dark and gritty, the streets covered with literal trash to match the human element that bothers Bickle. His use of through the windshield scenes are remarkably effective, showing us the world as Bickle moves through it viewing through the glass, almost like a child visiting the zoo. He is even isolated from his passengers, seeing them only through his rear view mirror. Whatever they do, doesn't affect him in the front seat. Bernard Hermann's score is also amazing, involving us in Bickle's precarious mental state shifting from dreamlike to threatening and back as needed, serving as an echo of his condition. It's notable that once Bickle finds his mission, the music disappears, as if for a moment, he's quieted the noise in his head.
DeNiro is amazing in this role, becoming Bickle inside and out. It's tough to admire DeNiro for it though, since his performance is so flawless we don't really see him, only Travis Bickle. For all his flaws and disturbances DeNiro's Bickle also has a certain dignity. This is a remarkably complex role, but we never see DeNiro acting, only Bickle struggling. The supporting cast is also terrific, Cybill Shepherd portrays Betsy believably as a woman who may as well exist in a different universe from Travis. She is lonely, as Travis surmised, but she doesn't live with her loneliness like he does. The difference between them is largely one of background and social skills, but those two factors are quite significant. She also has aspirations, Palatine's campaign is a cause she sees as greater than herself, and perhaps this also attracts Bickle, the idea that she has found such a thing. His first chosen cause, is Betsy herself. As he puts it, "She's appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess..."Whether devoting himself to her beauty or to the idea of Love itself, this is a cause, which could make him great. His social ignorance however, makes this impossible, and for Betsy, who rarely travels outside convention, his social faux pas is unforgivable. He lured her outside her comfort zone, and then, in her thinking, insulted her, so she ran right back. While she recognizes that Bickle is full of contradictions, she can't imagine that anyone could bring her to a porno movie with innocent intentions. Young Jodie Foster is wonderful as Iris, making the most of her fairly limited time. Harvey Keitel as Sport is charmingly sleazy, and his exchanges with DeNiro are remarkably entertaining.
Travis Bickle is not a man plagued by a great outside evil. He is rather plagued by his own mind and the absence of anything great in his life. He blames "the filth" that infests the streets, but at the same time, he drives around at night as if he's seeking it out. For a man bothered by the darker elements, he always ensures that he's surrounded by them. He makes it very clear that he want to be "something." yet he can accomplish little when he lives most of his life inside his own head. He attempts to be social, hanging out with the other drivers for example, but he can't contribute easily to conversations, always getting caught up in his own lonely thoughts. It's notable that the other drivers don't find Bickle that strange and take his idiosyncrasies in stride. He's socially awkward, but not unique in that. He's a character that anyone could run into anywhere. He's lonely and frustrated but the intensity isn't obvious.
Bickle needs to "make a stand." Of that much, he is certain. He just doesn't know what he should make a stand for. His world doesn't offer easy black and white answers. How he chooses is another interesting point. Bickle is intelligent, but not educated. He comes to ideas and believes them but doesn't examine them through books or even conversation. He believes what feels right and "makes sense" to him, not much further than that. Intellectually, he chooses killing Palatine as his cause. The obvious reason would seem to be that he's identified Betsy as "like all the rest." and so determined her cause is not worthy either, and so deems it worthy of being eliminated.
My feeling is that Bickle also recognizes Palatine's insincerity, instinctively feeling insulted by Palatine's condescension when he was in the cab. Palatine says "I've learned more in cabs, than in all the limousines" While on the surface, Bickle accepts that, we sense his Bickle's belief straining, although at the time it stays in place because he still sees a chance with Betsy. It's worth remembering that while Bickle seems oblivious, he hears what's going on and doesn't forget, as evidenced several times, such as in the diner with drivers he was offered a good deal on guns, which he seems to disregard, but picks up on later. Another example is his brief first encounter with Iris, which he initially doesn't act on, but does a little later. He recalls what Palatine told him in the cab, agreeing with his own assessment of New York as a cesspool, and stating that, yes, something should be done, but it would require drastic changes. He later sees Palatine on television, stating that he feels the people have answered his demands and risen to meet them. The two ideas are contradictory, and it's likely that's enough to tell Bickle that Palatine is a liar, or at least give him a justification to be angry. Keeping a liar from being President is a far more likely cause for Bickle than revenge against Betsy, a cause that goes against his reasoning (although that feeling is certainly there, he can't act on it for that reason.) We know from the beginning of the movie that he prizes his clean conscience, and while he may be capable of anything, it seems likely that he would need to justify his cause to himself.
A man who doesn't see himself as good, couldn't pass judgment as he does on the streets of the city. He doesn't see himself as evil by any means, only lost and confused. His moral center however can't be defined by an "average" moral center. We see him shoot a robber in the face without hesitation, only concerned that the cops will bother him about his lack of a permit. We don't know where he's been or what he's done in the past. He claims he was a Marine, but given all his claims later on of working for the government, this may be suspect. His sloppiness when killing Sport and his crew, suggests that if he was, he was never in the habit of killing. Whether or not he was a Marine, killing is not a problem for him at all, and neither is dying. It's implied that he thinks he'll be killed after shooting Palatine, given his questioning the secret service agent about his gun and his statement to Iris that he'll be "going away." His attempted suicide after shooting Sport's crew confirms that he's ready to die.
It's only by luck that he fulfills his secondary cause, freeing Iris from Sport. It seems likely that if he had indeed killed Palatine and been killed himself, Iris would've kept the money, but not gotten free. So even after finding the cause to give himself to, it's only his failure that allows him to accomplish anything truly worthy. Whether he would've accomplished this if he didn't believe they'd catch him for trying to shoot Palatine is uncertain. His sense of borrowed time, spurs him to make a last action and almost by accident he ends up accomplishing something good.
One very unsettling part of the movie, is the fact that Bickle has not changed. He played out his messiah fantasies and came out as a hero. He's celebrated, since no one knows of his attempted assassination. The loneliness that plagued him, doesn't show any indication of having gone anywhere. In fact, his perceived heroism, would likely increase his sense of isolation and give more credibility to the urges he struggles with. We don't know what he'll do next, but I would wager it won't be comforting. It's only a matter of time before he runs into another woman he needs to "save."
This isn't a film about morality. It doesn't condemn or praise Travis Bickle, just shows us a picture of who he is and what he does. We wonder, is Travis Bickle a product of his circumstances, is he just mentally ill, or both? While he's clearly psychotic, some of his concerns are valid in the context of the movie. He knows what his own problem is when he states, "I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people." He clearly believes that he should be like other people but he doesn't know how. He can't get past the lack of something to stand for. He wants to be admirable, so much so that he'll give his life to achieve it. He's terribly misguided and naive in certain ways, but given what he sees in his life, it's not much of a stretch to think that his quest is not only to make himself worthy, but to prove that something worthy exists. (not that his mind would accept the prrof if he found it) If the film gives any answer, it's that sometimes good exists, but rarely does it happen due to your plans. The true tragedy is the ease with which Bickle walks through the word without raising a single red flag, finding himself a hero as a result of his psychosis being again unnoticed by the system and society around him.