Taxi Driver (1976) Film Analysis: A Scorsese Classic Revisited

When discussing the filmography of Martin Scorsese, it becomes apparent that his works explore both the depths of spirituality and the allure of debauchery. Films like “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” showcase the downfall of individuals consumed by their vices, while works like “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Silence” explore more explicitly religious themes. However, one early masterpiece often overlooked as a spiritual journey is Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976). In this film, Scorsese takes us on a sickening yet fascinating exploration of the human psyche through the eyes of Travis Bickle, a lonely and forgotten veteran who becomes a taxi driver in a corrupt and hypocritical world.

A Symbolic City Reflecting the Good and Evil Within Us

The depiction of New York City in “Taxi Driver” serves as a metaphor for the human psyche, representing the potential for both goodness and malevolence. The vibrant neon lights illuminate the city, casting their glow upon what Bickle describes as its “scum” inhabitants. Throughout his journeys as a taxi driver, Bickle encounters a variety of characters, some embodying the good and others epitomizing the darkness that resides within us all. Scorsese skillfully introduces the audience to the notion that beneath the city’s surface lies a sinister underbelly.

As Bickle shares his thoughts through journal entries that serve as narration for the film, he reflects upon the despicable nature of the city’s citizens, the sordid streets they inhabit, and the perpetual task of cleaning up after them. These encounters with the trash of the city are minor in comparison to the sickening and profane human interactions that unfold throughout the narrative. Scorsese’s portrayal of these interactions highlights the stark contrast between the unsightly objects in the streets and the depravity exhibited by individuals.

The Role of Betsy: Light in a Darkening World

Cybill Shepherd’s character, Betsy, symbolizes light, hope, and purity in Travis Bickle’s increasingly dark world. Betsy volunteers for the presidential campaign of Charles Palantine, catching Bickle’s eye during one of his shifts as a taxi driver. Initially, Betsy finds Bickle’s awkwardness endearing, sparking a romantic interest in him. However, their relationship takes a turn for the worse when Bickle takes her to a pornographic film, causing a rift between them. In an unforgettable scene, Scorsese visually captures the collapse of their relationship as Bickle futilely attempts to apologize over the phone, with the camera slowly panning away, signifying the irreparable damage caused by his actions. The deterioration of his connection with Betsy further contributes to Bickle’s descent into an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable mental state. While Betsy represents the inherent goodness that tries to withstand the corruption, their ultimate separation illustrates the limited power of a small spark of goodness against the overwhelming tide of corruption.

A Journey Towards the Abyss

As the film progresses, Bickle’s path takes him closer to the edge of the abyss. He purchases a gun, receives unhelpful advice from a friend, and futilely attempts to “save” a young prostitute named Iris from her pimp, Sport. The climax of the film culminates in Bickle’s failed assassination attempt on Palantine, followed by his return to the brothel where Iris works, resulting in the violent deaths of Sport and a client.

It is through this climactic scene that “Taxi Driver” reflects a tragic downfall rather than a jubilant triumph. As the scene unfolds, the lighting grows darker, the melancholic jazz score ceases, and an eruption of violence ensues. This nightmarish ending originally earned the film an X rating, signifying that the audience is not meant to find any sense of fulfillment in Bickle’s climactic shootout. Instead, it serves as a haunting reminder of the devastating consequences of unchecked moral depravity.

A Complex Portrayal of a Troubled Hero

Bickle is hailed as a hero in the aftermath of his actions. The newspapers describe him as such, and even Iris’ parents express their gratitude in a heartfelt letter, thanking him for “returning our Iris to us.” However, “Taxi Driver” is far from offering a simplistic and unambiguous happy ending. Screenwriter Paul Schrader himself asserts that Bickle is not cured by the film’s conclusion and suggests that he may continue to perpetrate even more abhorrent acts, now that he has been rewarded for his violent deeds. As the narrative draws to a close, Bickle has one final encounter with Betsy, only to separate once again, highlighting the immense gap between them and exposing the depths to which Bickle has descended. The dichotomy between the sacred and the profane is never more apparent as Bickle drives away, stealing glances at Betsy through his rearview mirror before violently turning his face away, consumed by turmoil and madness.

A Fascade of Contradictions: The Pilgrim, Chapter 33

There is a pivotal moment in the film where Betsy references a Kris Kristofferson song titled “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.” She recites a line from the song, describing its protagonist as “a prophet and a pusher… a walking contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction.” This song encapsulates the perpetual struggles faced by Bickle, teetering on the precarious edge between good and evil. His personal battles in the gritty streets of New York mirror the internal conflicts that each individual must confront. Scorsese and his talented crew masterfully create a thought-provoking and philosophical narrative that contemplates the profane and the spiritual in a manner that solidifies “Taxi Driver” as one of cinema’s defining masterpieces.


“Taxi Driver” presents a chilling exploration of the human psyche through the eyes of Travis Bickle, a disturbed and alienated veteran turned taxi driver. Scorsese skillfully weaves together themes of spirituality, corruption, and the darkness within society. The film’s portrayal of New York City as a metaphor for the human psyche, the deteriorating relationship between Bickle and Betsy, and Bickle’s descent into madness all contribute to a thought-provoking cinematic experience. “Taxi Driver” challenges its audience to confront the complexities of good and evil within themselves, leaving a lasting impact on those who dare to explore its disturbing yet captivating narrative.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What inspired Martin Scorsese to create “Taxi Driver”?

Martin Scorsese drew inspiration from his own experiences navigating the mean streets of New York City, witnessing the various contradictions and troubles that permeated the urban landscape. He sought to capture the essence of this darkness and translate it onto the screen.

2. Is “Taxi Driver” based on a true story?

No, “Taxi Driver” is not based on a specific true story. However, it reveals the harsh realities of urban life and explores the underlying psychological factors that can drive an individual to the edge of sanity.

3. What impact did “Taxi Driver” have on cinema?

“Taxi Driver” made a profound impact on the world of cinema by challenging traditional storytelling and presenting complex, morally ambiguous characters. The film’s themes and visual style influenced subsequent generations of filmmakers, cementing its status as a cinematic masterpiece.

4. How did Robert De Niro prepare for his role as Travis Bickle?

Robert De Niro is known for his immersive approach to acting, and his preparation for the role of Travis Bickle was no exception. De Niro reportedly spent several weeks driving a taxi and even obtained the necessary license to fully understand the experiences and mannerisms of a real taxi driver.

5. Why is “Taxi Driver” still relevant today?

The themes explored in “Taxi Driver” remain relevant due to their timeless nature. The film prompts viewers to reflect on the duality of human nature, the allure of darkness, and the overwhelming power of societal corruption. Its haunting portrayal of a troubled character struggling with his own demons resonates with audiences across generations.