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Cult Series: Taxi Driver - Scorsese’s legendary portrayal of a lone wolf’s existential angst

Hollywood legend Robert De Niro uttering the line “You talkin’ to me?” and pointing a gun at a mirror is unarguably one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Not only does he give the best performance of his lifetime, Martin Scorsese’s talents as a director shine brighter than ever in this emblematic film.


'Taxi Driver' is the story of Travis Bickle, a lonely, insomniac twenty six year old Vietnam veteran who drives a cab around New York City at night to make a living. In his moonlighting odyssey through the streets of New York, Travis pictures the life he wants to live, playing out scenarios in his head as he drives customers to their destinations. But despite his attempts to blend in, the big city proves to be a rough and cruel place for outsiders like him, and he is consistently rejected, ending up completely isolated from society. The only person with whom he seems to form a bond is an underage prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), whom he fervently attempts to save from the clutches of a corrupt business. But Travis’ fate is inevitable regardless: already an angst-driven person, he is destined to eventually turn sour as a result of the continuous exclusion he faces. His sociopathic behaviour first comes afloat when he is rejected by the woman of his dreams, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the pure and angelic blonde who embodies the American dream he longs for. Unable to understand why she stops answering his calls after he takes her to a porn film theatre for a cinema date, this sequence proves to be the catalyst event that sends Travis into a state of depression, filling him with rage and disgust for the values Betsy represents. In his obscure loneliness, Travis resolves to avenge himself by attacking the society that has alienated him. He starts a rigorous physical training program and plans to assassinate Senator Charles Palantine, a Kennedy-esque presidential candidate whom Betsy admires and fervently campaigns for, as his ultimate act of revenge.


The cinematography, brilliantly curated by Michael Chapman, is characterised by a mythic vintage aura, its vibrant, nightlife colours and bright city lights immortalising the ecstasy of 1970s midtown New York. It’s this 35mm aesthetic, along with Bernard Herrmann’s original score, a groovy jazz sound that creates a smooth, entrancing atmosphere, that gives 'Taxi Driver' its hypnotic sensibility. Robert De Niro gives a ground-breaking tour-de-force performance as lone wolf Travis, who relentlessly tries to be good as he seeks meaningful social interactions. However, he is somehow always misunderstood, unable to see things the way society does, no doubt due in part to his experiences during the Vietnam War. In this sense, the film is a brilliant one character study that explores the protagonist’s complexity in depth. Travis for instance frequently writes in his notebook, an act of catharsis which gives the viewer access to his state of mind. Paul Schrader, the acclaimed writer of the script, was inspired by Dostoevsky’s 'Notes from the Underground' (1864) and the existential heroes of European cinema when he created the storyline. The subject matter of the film is thus a heroic anti-hero, a “walking contradiction” as Betsy phrases it when she and Travis first meet.

From the explicit re-enactment of Robert De Niro’s mirror monologue by Vincent Cassel’s Vinz in Matthieu Kassovitz’s 'La Haine' (1995) to Todd Phillips’ strikingly reminiscent 'Joker' (2019), the legacy of 'Taxi Driver' is ever-present in modern day cinema. Its influence over the works of Quentin Tarantino also, who has described it as one of his favourite movies of all time, is tangible in most of his films. Tarantino’s characteristic cowboy gun duels and bloody ending scenes such as in 'Pulp Fiction' (1994), Django Unchained (2012) and 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' (2019) clearly draw a parallel with the ending scene in 'Taxi Driver'. Having transcended through the decades as one of the most masterly crafted motion pictures on loneliness and angst, 'Taxi Driver' truly establishes itself as a quintessential cult film, legendary to its core.

Edited by Juliette Howard, Film Editor

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