Years ago, I finally watched Taxi Driver (1976), one of those classic movies I’d been hearing about forever but for whatever reason never got a chance to see. Going in, I couldn’t have been more excited. First, it was directed by legendary director Martin Scorsese, who I think directed one of the best gangster films of all time, Goodfellas. Secondly, I knew of the movie from its many iconic scenes (“You talkin’ to me?”) and wanted to see them in context. Lastly, being a native New Yorker who’s seen the city transformed so much from when I was a kid in the 1970s, I wanted to take a trip down memory lane.
My reaction when I finally watched the film? Disappointment, just nothing but disappointment. The movie simply didn’t live up to its reputation, and was a huge let down coming from someone like Scorsese. It felt like another Scarface, an average movie that had only achieved iconic status because of a few scenes and catchphrases.
After my initial reaction to Taxi Driver, I vowed that I would never revisit it again–that is, until recently. I figured that I might’ve judged it too harshly the first time and that it would be better to give it a second chance. So, I watched it again recently. And guess what? Not only did my opinion not change, I wound up disliking the movie more than I had the first time, if only because its flaws were even more evident the second time around.
Don’t get me wrong–the movie is well shot, directed and acted. I even love the dialogue (ironic, because it’s usually the dialogue that Taxi Driver‘s haters base their criticisms on). In spite of appreciating the movie’s strengths this time around, there was no getting past so many of its flaws, which were so egregious that it canceled whatever was good about it. So, my feelings still stand. I don’t like Taxi Driver. I don’t think it’s the movie everyone gives it credit for, and for the following reasons:
Its Reputation as Gritty, Dark Realism is Undeserved
I am positively gobsmacked when people celebrate Taxi Driver as being this gritty, dark, envelope-pushing film that pulled no punches.
Are you kidding me?
Okay, admittedly, yes– for the first seven-eighths of the movie, Taxi Driver is a very gritty, harrowing urban drama. We are taken along the ride as a sociopath descends into a madness that causes him to attempt to assassinate an innocent politician and commit mass murder. When Travis finally explodes, that scene in which he’s sitting on the couch couldn’t be grittier, darker or nihilistic. It’s clear that at this point in the movie, Travis is done. He’s going to die. If by sheer miracle he does make it, he’ll spend the rest of his life locked up in prison or a psych ward.
All so very dark, edgy, gritty, right? Right. Too bad about that ending, though, which tacks on the corniest, tritest happy ending you could ever imagine, like something straight out of a 1940s Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. For one, Travis miraculously survives being shot in the neck and rest of his body at point blank range with nothing more to show for it but “a little stiffness”. (Just a quick reality check: when I was a kid, a local Chinese takeout owner was shot in the neck during a robbery. The bullet shattered his voice box. He spoke in a rasp for the rest of his life.)
As if Travis’ medical miracle isn’t bad enough, then there’s his mental illness. After he goes full blown psycho, kills a bunch of people and fails to kill himself, we see him in the last scene of the movie chatting with his taxi buddies as if nothing had happened. Now he’s back to normal, just like that.
It gets worse. In spite of having no justification for killing three men that night–and in spite of being seen menacingly lurking around Palantine’s rally just a few hours before–he doesn’t get arrested at all. In fact, he is hailed as a hero who took out a bunch of criminals. Iris hops, skips and jumps back home, is lovingly embraced by her parents and goes back to school, as if she could just drop her seedy life of drugs and prostitution and readjust to the normal, innocent and obedient life of a 12 year old schoolgirl.
But the worst and most sickening thing of all about the ending is that Travis Gets. The. Girl. Or at the least puts her in her place. Yep. The woman who was justifiably upset with him and later terrified when he kept stalking her suddenly shows up in the last scene, looking humbled and acting as if she might’ve been mistaken about him the entire time. Technically, they don’t hook up in the end but the movie suggests that he’s won her over finally and she’s game or that he’s knocked the uppity bitch off her high and mighty perch and is getting the last laugh.
Wow. Forget for the time being the disturbing moral implications of any of this. Forget about the lack of realism. The biggest problem with this ending is that it’s so typical happy Hollywood ending that it makes Taxi Driver even more simplistic, trite, safe and conventional than the mainstream movies it was supposedly flying in the face of. Yet to this day, people hail it as being a gritty, edgy, dark and daring film? How?
Taxi Driver’s trite ending is why I found the IMDB reviewers condescendingly referring to Saturday Night Fever as “Scorsese light” and “wannabe Scorsese” absurd. Keep in mind that I have problems with that movie as well, but for all its flaws, it was far more daring and edgier than Taxi Driver. Not only did it end tragically, the movie had the balls to lull the audiences into falling in love with the world of disco, only to slap it in the face in the last act and say, “Hey, you stupid morons. It’s a trashy scene for low class losers like Tony Manero who have no future.”
Taxi Driver does the opposite. It spends the entire duration of the movie plunging the viewer into a deep, dark, seedy world filled with violence and mental illness, only to end on an unrealistic, treacly note in which everything resolves itself in the corniest and neatest way possible.
Taxi Driver Squandered Its Brilliance
Taxi Driver reminds me a lot of Vertigo. I know. You think I’m crazy. However, if you read the last part of my essay about Vertigo, you’ll understand why I see a strong similarity between both films.
You see, Taxi Driver, like Vertigo, seemed to have originally started on one incredibly brilliant track, only to have its brilliance undercut by some creative decisions that turned it into a far weaker film. How do I know that? Because all signs indicate that the scene of Travis dying on the couch was supposed to be the very last shot of the movie.
Why do I feel as if Taxi Driver was originally meant to end there? Because if you imagine the movie ending with Travis dying, the scenes that happen earlier in the movie take on a completely different flavor and context. Not only that, a large number of themes suddenly appear when they didn’t before. It’s almost as if by taking out the ending, a veil is lifted and we get to see Taxi Driver in its original state.
To show you what I mean, let’s discuss what the movie is with the ending. With the ending, Taxi Driver is a pedestrian crime drama about a socially awkward, unassuming taxi driver who decides to go vigilante after becoming so fed up with the crime and vice infesting NYC. After getting badly shot in the process of rescuing a 12 year old prostitute, he miraculously recovers from his gun shot wounds and becomes a local hero. He also wins the admiration and respect of a woman who had previously rebuffed him.
Without the ending, Taxi Driver isn’t a crime drama at all. First, it’s a character study inspired by what at the time was still an emerging phenomenon. After the JFK assassination and the Charles Whitman Texas University shootings, Americans had begin wondering about the connection between those types of shootings and “marine training.” (George Carlin even joked about it: “Up on the roof with a Magnum! Bam! Nine dead and they blame marine training.”) So, Taxi Driver, without the ending, is exploring the scenario of an ex-marine cut from the same cloth as Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Whitman having the type of breakdown that would lead him to go on a mass shooting spree.
Secondly, Taxi Driver is a send up of Death Wish, a movie that pandered to racist paranoia about NYC being overrun by violent, dangerous minorities, as well as pushed a ridiculous vigilante fantasy. Lastly, Taxi Driver is a mockery of America’s increasing gun fetishism, which was just getting underway because of a spate of violent mainstream movies, thanks to director Sam Peckinpah and movies like Death Wish and Dirty Harry.
Try to imagine Taxi Driver in the context of character portrait of a mentally unstable ex-marine going crazy right before he goes postal, a mockery of gun fetishism and an answer to Death Wish’s racist paranoia and stupid vigilante fantasy, and you can see that these are the themes that the movie originally set out to explore.
Here is one particular clue to help you out. Many people see the violent showdown in the third act as the socially inept Travis Bickle heroically rising to the occasion to rescue Iris. But view that scene with the ending taken out of the equation (let’s call this Taxi Driver 1.0), and everything changes. Notice that in the violent showdown in the last act, Travis seems to at first successfully take down Iris’ handlers. He shoots two guys, they go down, everything looks fine and he confidently goes to her apartment to rescue her. But then out of nowhere, the pimp comes back with guns blazing and Guy #2 shoots Travis in the arm and neck, mortally wounding him.
Now notice Iris’ reaction when Travis comes to her rescue. She’s not happy about it. She’s devastated. She didn’t want him to kill anyone. In fact, she begs Travis to not shoot Guy #3. When he does, she lies there sobbing her eyes out and looking as if her world has just been shattered. Now notice how, after the bloodbath, Travis tries to kill himself, even though he had succeeded in taking out Iris’ handlers.
In considering this scene without the ending, you can see how Taxi Driver 1.0 originally might’ve been intended to blow apart the ridiculous myth about vigilantism that was so prevalent in movies like Death Wish. In that movie, Paul Kersey gets to walk around killing armed thugs with ease and having everyone kiss his ass for it. In Taxi Driver 1.0, we’re presented the reality–that cleaning up the city of “scum and filth” would never in a million years be the type of cake walk where you just stroll into criminal territory, blow crooks away and walk away unscathed. Chances are, you’ll be mortally wounded in the process. Even if you managed to survive the ordeal, you’d be apprehended by the police in a heartbeat. Making matters worse, it might turn out that the person you had hoped to save never wanted saving in the first place.
The reality of vigilantism is why Travis decides to attempt suicide. Based on shitty movies like Death Wish, he had expected to coolly execute Iris’ handlers, grab her by the hand, walk out of there without so much as a scratch and be her knight in shining armor. Instead, he not only was badly shot, it turns out that Iris didn’t want to be rescued at all and in fact was horrified by what he’d done. On top of that, he probably realized that he was in a shit ton of legal trouble. So, in Taxi Driver 1.0, he attempts to kill himself, both out of disillusionment and the understanding that he’s fucked his future up in the worst way possible.
Here is another clue that Taxi Driver 1.0 was meant to be a completely different film from Taxi Driver 2.0. Again, imagine the movie ending with Travis Bickle dying on the couch. Now ask yourself, “Why are the three criminals that Travis kill white men?” The movie spent so much time doing these fleeting shots of angry black men as if to imply that NYC was overrun with them, only to end with the most violent confrontation happening with three white men. What is the deal?
Some people angry with the film thought it was a cynical ploy to avoid accusations of racism. In other words, they argue that the only reason why the last three guys were white was as a cover to for Taxi Driver’s racism against blacks. But no, if you consider the movie without the ending, you will see that the reason they were made white was for the opposite reason–to make the point that Travis Bickle was racially paranoid. Not only was he racially paranoid, he was projecting his own violent tendencies onto black men.
In other words, here he was, seeing nothing but angry black men everywhere, yet the most dangerous criminal elements were white men. Hell, he himself was a dangerous white man. In fact, he was the most dangerous out of the three white guys he killed and the black robber he shot earlier in the movie. Yet he was seeing black men as the biggest threat to the city because he was projecting his own violent impulses onto them. Brilliant, insightful commentary, huh?
Too bad about that ending, though.
It wasn’t just the ending that threw Taxi Driver off track. There are key scenes in the movie that clearly were meant to underscore how much of a lunatic and gun nut Travis was but were undermined by some self-indulgent creative decisions. For example, the scenes in which he’s wearing and trying out the entire case of guns he bought were supposed to play out as absurd, almost comical. The mohawk was supposed to show that Travis’s descent into madness was now complete.
But because Scorsese played up DeNiro’s physique in the bedroom scene, Travis (who was futzing around looking dorky for most of the movie) finally looks sexy and hip for the first time. When Travis shows up at Palantine’s rally in mohawk and glasses, he doesn’t look crazy. He now looks like a cool bad ass rebelling against a society that kept mocking him for being and looking so socially inept.
These little touches (sexing up Travis in the bedroom scene and giving him a punk makeover) may have given Taxi Driver a cooler and more stylish edge had the movie played everything straighter, but all they did was undermine the brilliant character study of an ex-marine who suddenly goes crazy.
Naturally, some fans of the movie are going to argue, “So what if all of this stuff took Taxi Driver off track? It’s still an amazing film, regardless.” Well, yes, it’s a good film. But it could’ve been a so much smarter and sophisticated movie had it not squandered its brilliance the way it did.
Taxi Driver’s Social Irresponsibility
Now we get to my last biggest issue with Taxi Driver: its social irresponsibility, which was introduced with its ending.
When we meet Travis in the beginning, he is a socially awkward loser showing signs that he’s had a history of mental instability. We learn that he was honorably discharged from the Marines but judging by his current behavior, there’s a strong possibility that he might’ve been discharged because he was mentally unfit for service. Travis is such a socially inept moron, he’s not even intelligent enough to understand that a classy woman like Betsy, who’s working in a high class profession (politics) wouldn’t appreciate being taken to a Times Square porn theater. And every person who meets him kind of makes a comment that he’s a little “off” socially. Betsy says she’s never met a person quite like him, and Iris says he’s a square. Even Iris’ pimp makes a joke about how odd he is.
Without the tacked on happy Hollywood ending, Travis’ obsession with guns and his later foray into vigilantism are framed in a negative light. It’s made perfectly clear that he is a loser and a psycho who is losing his mind. He is also a paranoid racist, seeing NYC as being under siege by angry, black violent men.
With the tacked on happy Hollywood ending, it’s a different story. Now he’s a hero who did his part to clean NYC up, rescued one girl and earned the respect of another. His social awkwardness, isolation and mental problems, which dogged him so much leading up to his vigilantism, become cured.
This “new spin” that Taxi Driver’s ending cast on Travis’ mindset and behavior not only flipped everything on its head, it did several things, all of them disturbing. The first thing it did was validate the distorted, racist perceptions that NYC was being constantly menaced by black men and that they needed to be “cleaned up” with the rest of its “filth”.
The second thing it did was glamorize guns and imbue them with a magical quality. The movie said that if you’re a socially awkward dork with zero social skills, owning and using a gun can result in a positive life transformation. It can turn you from zero to hero, make you cooler, hipper and sexier. One minute, you’re a bumbling, mumbling asshole who everyone kind of looks down on as a “square” and weirdo; the next, you’re a cool bad ass with ripped muscles strutting around in your bedroom wielding a gun with a confidence you never had.
The third thing that Taxi Driver’s ending implied was that if you murder people in cold blood for the “right reasons”, there will be or should be no legal or social repercussions for your actions. The reason why is that in the eyes of the law and the public, you have righteousness on your side. Righteous action trumps morality or even the law, so if you take it upon yourself to go out and kill “bad people” in cold blood, it’s all good. The police and legal system will simply pat you on the back and look the other way.
Lastly, guns will make you invincible to the point of being superhuman. You’ll be able to be shot multiple times at point blank range and not be killed outright or become paralyzed or suffer other permanent life-changing injuries. You can survive a deadly shoot out with no real issues.
Some people may argue in response to what I’ve said, “So what if Taxi Driver suggests all these things? It’s just a movie, anyway. Movies aren’t real life. They’re fantasy.” Well, the problem is that fantasy or not, movies that are very good at playing to an audience’s emotions and shaping its way of thinking can have a real world impact. When a filmmaker shoots a film that has the potential of manipulating people, he has a responsibility to not do anything that might manipulate them in a way that could have a damaging impact on society. If he just says, “Fuck it. I’ll do what I want because I’m an artiste; who cares what kind of detrimental impact my movie could have,” the movie becomes socially irresponsible.
For example, the movie Midnight Express did such a good job selling its distorted image of Turkey to the movie going public that it destroyed the country’s tourism for decades. It didn’t matter that Oliver Stone and Alan Parker had no intention of hurting Turkey and only pulled this image of it being a morally and politically bankrupt, barbaric country out of their asses in order to punch up the drama. The point is that they were effective at manipulating movie goers into thinking that this is what Turkey really was like.
Ditto Taxi Driver. It didn’t matter what the intent of the movie was. Intention or not, it successfully sent messages that wound up inspiring acts of violence or helped exacerbate preexisting problems in the Real World. It’s not a coincidence that John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan on Jodie Foster’s behalf after becoming infatuated with this movie. It’s not a coincidence that a few years later, Bernard Goetz gunned down black youths in a NYC subway, was hailed as a hero and walked away with a light sentence. It’s not a coincidence that NYC became a powder keg of racial tensions in the 1980s. These incidents were either indirectly or directly instigated, fueled or exacerbated by Taxi Driver and other films in this vein, particularly Death Wish.
The crazy irony is that if the movie had ended with Travis Bickle dying on the couch, the movie would’ve been the most socially responsible movie of the 1970s. It would’ve mocked vigilantism, mocked America’s gun fetishism and woken Americans up to the realities of mentally unstable people with access to guns. It would’ve also exposed racial paranoia about the inner city. Instead, it glamorized guns, helped perpetuate Death Wish’s ridiculous vigilante fantasy, gave damaged individuals in the real world a hero to look up to emulate and fueled racial paranoia that dogged cities like New York well into the 1990s.
My Final Thoughts
I can forgive Taxi Driver undermining its social commentary. I can forgive it backing away from its grittiness with a fairy tale ending in which everything magically works itself out in the end. But the social irresponsibility is what kills the movie for me. I can’t like the film in spite of it being expertly directed, well written or well acted. I’m not arguing against its status as a classic film or trying to convince everyone to not like it. I’m just explaining why not everyone is totally on board with this film as a classic.