"Did anyone prophesize these people?
-Red Angel Dragnet by The Clash
Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, Taxi Driver, debuted on Febuary 8th 1976, the same year David Berkowitz aka the Son of Sam started his killing spree in New York City. There were also a total of 1,600 murders in the city that year (in 1980 there would be 1,814 and in 1990 2,245!!) The city was still suffering from the 1975 fiscal crisis which would eventually lead to the 25 hour black out in 1977 which lead to looting, arson and murder. Then there was the heroin and crack and a massive decrease in police presence which made an already violent city more terrifying.
Taxi Driver was about one man in that city. A man who claimed he would not take it anymore. A man that would stand up to the scum, the filth. But Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), he was no hero. Travis Bickle was a sick man. A man suffering from post traumatic stress disorder from his time in Vietnam, but there's no sense in Taxi Driver that Bickle wasn't already touched with a bit of darkness before he shipped out from boot camp. Not to say Bickle lacked a moral center, on the contrary, he knew the difference between right and wrong and firmly believed in his rightness. He was no junky, dealer, pimp, fairy, creep, whatever. He was a man who could not take it anymore. A man who dreamt of the day a real rain would come and wash all the filth off the street.
There are two distinct stories intertwining in Taxi Driver. One, is the story of Travis the fed up taxi driver, who after a chance encounter with a 13 year old prostitute, Iris (Jody Foster), decides it's his duty to rescue her from this scumbag pimp named Sport (Harvey Keitel). Travis purchases guns from a black market dealer to become a hero vigilante. The second, is the story of Travis the lonely Taxi driver who meets the angelic Betsy (Cybill Shepard). He falls for her hard, but after a disastrous first date she never wants to see him again. He's so tore up by her flat rejection of him that he purchases guns from a black market dealer, intending to assassinate presidential candidate Charles Palantine, for whom Betsy works for and admires.
The two stories twist around each other like snakes, but Travis also seems outside of his own stories at times. Left alone to narrate his own descent into hell. He floats in and out of the roles of savior and destroyer and doesn't seem to understand that they're not different, they're the same man with the same story. He's "God's lonely man." He's sick, weak and he knows it (like Fyodor Dostoevsky's antagonist in Notes From The Underground) and he has to get better and get stronger, healthier, all the while self-sabotaging all his own efforts.
Even if you haven't seen Taxi Driver you probably know the "You talkin' to me?" bit or have seen the images of a mohawked DeNiro. It was a favorite of The Clash and they quoted a chunk of dialogue in the song that opened this essay. It's a touchstone of cinema and pop culture.
Writer Paul Schrader drew inspiration for the film from the loneliness and depression he felt driving around all night after his divorce. He was also influenced by the aforementioned Notes From the Underground. Notes and Taxi Driver are both related to the audience by the a first person narrative, men who are not well with the world. Bitter outcasts who fantasize revenge. Schrader saw the taxi
Taxi Driver is as close to perfect a a film can get. It's meticulous in its world building and portrayal of the darker aspects of the human soul. All the stars really go above and beyond in their roles, even supporting characters played by Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle and Scorsese himself are essential pieces to this amazing puzzle.