Taxi Driver is celebrating 40 years, and since I consider it my all-time favorite film, it stands to reason that I may have something to say about it. I said a lot, actually, when I analyzed the film for a college paper. I can’t imagine I could ever say it any better than I did then, so I decided to publish that paper here. It’s long, but I couldn’t bear to cut very much; I’m proud of this work, and grateful for everyone involved in the making of the film for crafting and enduring and thought-provoking classic. A 40th Anniversary Blu-ray is set to release Nov. 8.
Ever since it was first released in 1976, Taxi Driver has been hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, and its director, Martin Scorsese, has stood the test of time as one of the world’s great directors. The film garnered four 1976 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, and won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Today, Taxi Driver is ranked number 52 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American films of all time, along with other Scorsese films Goodfellas and Raging Bull. In their book The Greatest Movies Ever, Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza rank it as the 15th greatest film of all time, American or otherwise, and the influential director and astute film critic Quentin Tarantino cites it in his top three. It’s safe to say that Taxi Driver has had an indelible and important impact on the history film. The film, however, is ethically troubling for several reasons. In portraying the seedy side of New York City, the film shows pimps, child prostitutes, graphic violence, and harsh language in a raw and unfiltered manner. Additionally, in its portrayal of the mental deterioration of a war veteran driven to madness by the world around him, the film can be a tough one to watch. In analyzing this film from an ethical and theological perspective, it is important to first analyze the “auteur” of the film as well as both the positive and negative ways in which this film has influenced the culture around it.
Many film critics and historians would consider Martin Scorsese to be one of the greatest living directors, if not the greatest. Raised on strong Roman Catholic roots, Scorsese desired to enter the seminary until he decided that his passions would fit much better in film. One of the forerunners of the “film school generation,” he graduated with a film degree from New York University in 1964. His first major film was Mean Streets, a film that would establish many of the themes and styles that would become hallmarks of most Scorsese films. The film world would never quite be the same again.
In his body of work, Scorsese often presents lonely characters, outsiders who find themselves in an unfamiliar social context that they are unable to overcome. In this way, Scorsese reflects the fact that, contrary to what we often believe, society can have ultimate and final victory over the individual. In Taxi Driver, that society is reflected by the city itself. Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, returns to the real world and is disgusted. He finds that he does not fit in with the rest of humanity. “Loneliness has followed me my whole life,” Travis says. “Everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”
“GOD’S LONELY MAN”
This “God’s lonely man” theme has become a hallmark of Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, the lonely man is Jake LaMotta, a man who has been trained in the boxing ring to feel nothing but rage. When he is confronted with real life, he does not know how to turn off that rage, and thus he treats all of his friends and loved ones as he would an opponent in the boxing ring. Similarly, in The King of Comedy, the lonely man is Rupert Pupkin, a struggling comedian who, despite his best attempts to cope with life’s tragedies through humor, is unable to realize that the rest of the world isn’t laughing. Even Jesus Christ, in Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ can be considered a “lonely man.” The burden of living a sinless life is one that no other person on earth shares or has ever shared. The expectations on him were tremendous, and no one was ever lonelier that Christ, during that moment on the cross where God his father forsook him. The difference here, of course, is that, while it may seem like society got the better of him (he was brutally crucified by the government), in reality Christ conquered the societal pressures around him by conquering death itself.
Another important theme that runs throughout Scorsese’s oeuvre is the concept that our occupation, or “calling,” will inevitably define who we are, for better or worse (often worse). In Taxi Driver, Travis’s friend, the Wizard, puts it like this. “A man takes a job, and that becomes what he is. You become the job.” In Travis’s case, the “job” of night taxi driver, which he takes because of his insomnia that he assumingly incurred from Vietnam, allows him to come into contact with the “animals” that “come out at night.” He sees the corruption and depravity of the world around him, and, as a result, feels that it his destiny to change the world around him for the “better.” Travis reflects upon this “destiny” when he says “My whole life has been pointed in one direction. There never has been any choice for me.” Unfortunately, his methods, while perhaps well-intentioned, are destructive and violent in the extreme, and the audience can’t help but wonder whether his destiny was something else (to die in Vietnam, perhaps)?
This (sometimes dichotomous) relationship between occupation and individuality is evident in many other Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta’s career as a boxer defines who he is; there is almost no separation between LaMotta in the ring and LaMotta in real life. His occupation has, in a sense, written his life’s story, and this leads to alienation and misery as his life crumbles around him. Once again, The Last Temptation of Christ provides another great (and more positive) example, as Christ, despite the temptation to remain fully human, to come down off of the cross and live a normal life, embraces his destiny to be the savior of mankind. Ultimately, it is not his temptation, but, rather his ability to live a sinless life in spite of that temptation, that defines him.
One of the more interesting techniques that Scorsese uses in many of his films is the subtle rejection of traditional gender roles. While men may have the physical power, women often hold the emotional and spiritual power, and it is this power that often leads the men to destruction, or at least the threat of it. In Taxi Driver, Travis first sees Betsy and immediately singles her out as a potential exception to the “scum” around him. “She appeared like an angel out of this filthy mass,” Travis narrates. “She is alone, they cannot touch her.” When she first appears, Betsy is wearing a white dress, and is shot with high light in comparison to the other people walking down the street. In this way, Betsy takes on a sort of angelic presence in Travis’ (and the audience’s) mind. When Betsy ultimately rejects him, Travis decides that, if love cannot help him escape the sickness of the world around him, perhaps violence can. Betsy has become the catalyst through which Travis heads on his path of “destiny.”
From the very beginning of his career, Scorsese has had an eye for women. He has seen them as strong, independent and powerful, as well as dangerous. In one of his first feature films, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese explores the theme of female independence and empowerment through the character of Alice, who is determined to not let the memory of her deceased husband haunt her. She wants to live a full life without the shadow of a man hovering over her. In Raging Bull, women hold a tremendous power over Jake. To him, women are something to be conquered, and, once they are, he wants to move on to the next. But, Jake discovers that it isn’t as easy as he might have hoped, and his wife leaving him for good at the end of the film proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, tossing him into a bottomless pit of despair and loneliness that he cannot escape. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill’s wife, Karen, holds a tremendous power over him, convincing him to try and leave the mob life for good. She is often presented as a stronger character than Henry, helping him handle the mob business with a clear and rational head. In Shutter Island, the deceased wife of Teddy Daniels holds a much more sinister power over him, providing the impetus for his paranoid, schizophrenic delusions. Scorsese takes things a step farther in The Last Temptation of Christ, where Mary Magdalene inadvertently puts the redemption of all humanity at risk. She holds a kind of sinful power over Jesus, the kind that tempts him to run away with her and live an ordinary, fully human life.
A SPIRITUAL FILMMAKER
In discussing Scorsese as an “auteur,” a critic would be remiss to reject his spiritual background and Roman Catholic roots. Scorsese himself once said “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” Indeed, while his films are not overtly evangelistic (in fact, they often seem quite the opposite), it is impossible to provide a full analysis of Scorsese’s work apart from this Catholic lens. The way in which this background is expressed is through the culture that he and his characters inhabit—the culture of the streets. As Scorsese narrates at the beginning of Mean Streets, “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” Throughout his work, Scorsese presents a kind of religion of the streets— a spirituality that comes from the natural world of human relationship, rather than from a confession booth. He presents a world that is undeniably corrupted by sin, and a humanity that is fallen. When it comes to God, there are no easy answers for Scorsese, and grace is rarely a way out for his characters, particularly because most of them choose such destructive paths to begin with. In Taxi Driver, Travis hopes that “someday, a rain will come and wash these scum off of the streets.” He realizes that humanity needs a redemptive rain to come and wash away our sins, but he is not sure where this rain will come from. There is often a kind of terrible grace amidst the chaos of this world, a grace that, while we may not be able to always see it, is there nonetheless.
Another spiritual theme inherent in Scorsese’s films is the notion of Catholic guilt, a concept that he has struggled with throughout his life. Catholic guilt is the concept that many Catholics and lapsed Catholics feel an especially heavy guilt because they place so much emphasis on personal responsibility for their salvation. Thus, the threat of hell (or purgatory) becomes more and more real as Catholics shirk their responsibilities, such as partaking in the Eucharist and making frequent trips to the confessional booth. This guilt and fear of hell is expressed by Charlie in Mean Streets. “It’s all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don’t fuck around with the infinite. There’s no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hands and the kind you can feel in your heart, your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know, the worst of the two is the spiritual.” Many Catholics fear the pain of eternal separation from God, but are unable to reconcile this fear with the way they live their lives. Perhaps Richard Blake put it best when speaking of characters in the work of Catholic filmmakers such as Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. “Their struggles are rarely couched in spiritual terms, but they are inevitably religious quests within milestones along the way marked by Catholic images. The Catholic imagination is more than Catholic, more than sacramental—it is profligate. It sees the workings of grace everywhere.” Perhaps this grace can somehow be found even amidst the moral depravity of the world that Scorsese’s gangsters, drug dealers and lunatics inhabit.
When examining film from a cultural perspective, it is important to ask how the viewer’s social situation influences the way they experience a movie, and vice versa. Throughout his career, Scorsese has had to wrestle with this question more than most filmmakers. Taxi Driver, in particular, had a much larger impact on the audience and society than the filmmakers had perhaps intended.
THE TIME AND PLACE OF TAXI DRIVER
Taxi Driver is a film that is best admired and appreciated through the social context in which it was originally created. Under that lens, the primary issue the film raises from a cultural perspective is the after-effects of the Vietnam War on veterans as well as society in general. After the war, which brought terrifyingly brutal technology and plenty of painful new ways to die to the art of killing, many of the veterans arrived home completely shell-shocked. Many of those who didn’t came home and ended up like Travis, feeling along, afraid, and lost in the a world that had seemed to pass them by. The first film that dealt with this theme more directly was Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, but that film was not released until 1978, while Taxi Driver was released in 1976. The war had officially ended in 1973, and the question that a film like Taxi Driver would have raised would have been “Is it too soon to talk about this?” Scorsese’s answer was a resounding no. Perhaps 1976 would have been too soon to release a war film as raw and violent as The Deer Hunter or Platoon, but the strength of Taxi Driver is that it was able to directly address the issues and fears relating to the aftermath of Vietnam without ever showing the war or even mentioning it directly. And yet, the effects of war are everywhere; not only in the minds of Travis and his fellow veterans, but in the streets of New York City, where horror and disgust over the war has brought about a new generation full of cynicism and amorality. As a nation, we may have felt unprepared to deal with these issues, but that doesn’t mean that they should have been swept under the rug. What great filmmakers like Scorsese have done throughout history is turn the mirror on society, forcing us to come to important revelations about ourselves even in the midst of pain and fear.
Another important cultural issue facing Taxi Driver upon its first release was the nature of the violence in the film itself. Indeed, the graphic shootout (even by today’s standards) at the end of the film threatened to give the film the dreaded “X” rating (now NC-17), which would have completely killed its chances at making any money. It was not until Scorsese and the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman decided to de-saturate the color to make the blood appear less red that the film was allowed to be released with an “R” rating. Certainly, many who watched the film when it was first released (and even today) would have been horrified by this scene, and would have questioned the necessity of such graphic violence in the film. This troubling violence is further exemplified in the scene where Travis attempts to assassinate the political candidate Charles Palantine. While he fails in his attempt, viewers might question the ethics involved in the scenes leading up to the attempt, which seem almost glamorous in their depiction of Travis as he buys guns and knives, lifts weights, and concocts quick-draw contraptions for his small army of weaponry. With Taxi Driver, Scorsese once again brought up the age-old question, “what are the effects of art on society?” While the filmmakers certainly may have had artistic reasons for including graphically violent content in the film, it nonetheless serves as an important to consider one’s audience and the potential effect on that audience before partaking in any artistic endeavor.
The filmmakers of Taxi Driver learned this lesson the hard way when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981 in Washington, D.C. The attempt came about as a result of Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster, who played Iris, the twelve-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver. He watched the film fifteen times in a continuous loop, and began to stalk Foster and purchase weapons. In the film, Travis brutally kills the pimps and mob bosses that have been taking advantage of Iris in an attempt to “save” Iris and provide her with a normal life. Hinckley hoped that assassinating the President would place him in the history books, and would impress Foster. The assassination attempt was not successful, but Hinckley seriously injured Reagan and several other staff members who were next to the President at the time. Certainly, Hinckley’s obsession with Foster came about as a result of viewing Taxi Driver multiple times, and thus, the relationship between art and life became all too real. At the trial, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, a verdict that outraged many. As a result, Congress and a number of states rewrote laws regarding the insanity defense, and some states abolished the defense altogether. In this way, Taxi Driver had a direct impact on the legal process. While this might be considered a positive effect of the film, it is all too easy to forget that, if Hinckley had been a better shot, the price paid for this effect could have been much higher.
ANALYZING THE THEOLOGY OF TAXI DRIVER
Taxi Driver is a thematically and spiritually complex film that defies simple categorization. This makes it a rather difficult to provide a theological analysis for. The theological analysis, as provided by Robert K. Johnston in Reel Spirituality, consists of two axes: the experiential axis and the critical axis. The experiential axis involves the concept of “transcendence,” a discovery in film of something beyond ourselves, something that demands our total involvement and has practical consequences for our lives. While consuming popcorn and watching an explosion-filled summer blockbuster, it can sometimes be hard to think of film as transcendent. Nonetheless, film is a medium that has changed peoples’ lives, and viewing film through the lens of transcendence is necessary to appreciating film as not just entertainment, but an art form. The concept of transcendence is divided into two definitions: “transcendence (the human)” and “Transcendence (the Holy).” Taxi Driver, with its graphic and disturbing content, might not seem like an ideal candidate for this kind of analysis, but, as Johnston writes, “any filmic story that portrays human experience truthfully has this spiritual capacity.” Taxi Driver is no exception.
Johnston writes that movies are first experienced and then reflected upon. Taxi Driver is a film that demands, first and foremost, to be experienced. Everything from the jazzy Bernard Hermann score, to the lush cinematography, to the tight script and Robert DeNiro’s indelible performance is designed a primarily emotional response from the viewer. Upon first viewing, the film does not relinquish any particularly divine revelatory moments. But, upon repeated viewings, the film has revealed to me a distinct concept of transcendence at a human level. I realize that, like Travis, I often feel like “God’s lonely man,” particularly as a Christian. I feel like I do not belong in this fallen world that is filled with so many different kinds of evil and corruption. I too, desire a way to “wash the scum off of the streets.” On a deeper level, the film has shown me that even my actions that I consider to be based upon noble or holy intentions can sometimes be harmful or destructive to others. Travis’ goals of cleaning up the streets and saving Iris from child prostitution were based upon noble intentions. But, while he did “save” Iris in the end, he only did so by killing people. And, while the film ends with Travis being praised as a hero, all he has really done is become that which he tried to fight. Despite the fact that I may disapprove of Travis’ actions, they serve as an important reminder that ideology is not always equivalent to action.
Transcendence (or “the Holy”) supports the idea that movies are a window through which God speaks. The trick about this holy transcendence is that God chooses a variety of means through which to speak to a variety of people. As Johnston puts it, “the experience can not be programmed.” We are not aware of when and where God will choose to speak to us, or what he will say. Throughout history, God has used artistic media, created by sinful humans, as a vessel through which we can experience divine revelation. Transcendence operates on the idea that grace is everywhere. As Johnston puts it, “God discloses himself through experiences, objects and people in our life.” Admittedly, I did not feel this type of transcendence upon first viewing Taxi Driver. And, even after watching it multiple times, I still did not experience a so-called “God moment,” nor did I expect to. I thought I had experienced everything that the film had to offer. However, a recent viewing of the film spoke to me in new ways, ways that only made sense in the context of holy Transcendence. In Travis, I began to see more than just a crusading, perhaps insane war veteran. I began to see his general disdain for humanity in the context of my own life, where I often self-righteously look down upon others for being sinful without acknowledging my own need for forgiveness. There is a scene where Travis, driving by a broken fire hydrant that is spewing water all over the road, rolls up his window to avoid the water. Like Travis, I often roll up my window, thinking that I am in the right and that it is only everyone except me who needs this redemptive rain. Through Travis, God has shown me my own hypocrisy and my need to prostrate myself at his feet, realizing all the while that I am a sinner who is just as much in need of a savior as everyone else on this planet. I wasn’t looking to find this “God moment,” least of all in a film like Taxi Driver, but it came to me nonetheless.
The horizontal axis of Johnston’s theological analysis is the “critical axis.” This axis relies upon a theological reflection of a film, rather than the experience of the film itself. According to Johnston, a critical response should first be measured by the film itself. After the initial experience, the film can then be reflected upon in a meaningful way. This reflection is of two general types: “staying within the movie itself” and “learning from a theological partner.” Staying within a movie itself seeks to find a standard for theological judgment within the movie itself, and does not appeal to outside ground for critique. Scorsese is the kind of director who wants his films to speak for themselves, so staying within the movie itself is a good critical route to take when analyzing Taxi Driver.
Staying within the film allows a critic to analyze the themes as they appear in the context of the film alone. Some of the themes that I analyzed in my “auteur” critique would work well in the context of staying within the film. Revisiting the “God’s lonely man” theme, a critic can see how this theme is conveyed throughout the film. Scorsese uses the camera to great effect to convey this theme. In a scene where Travis is facing his final rejection from Betsy over the phone, the camera slowly trucks to the right and focuses on a long, empty hallway. The camera stays on this hallway for an excruciatingly long time as we hear Travis being rejected. Through the movement of the camera, Scorsese conveys Travis’ odd-man-out status, and his emptiness and loneliness over his rejection. As an audience, we often feel like Travis, empty and hollow, trudging through a world that seems to refuse to reveal our purpose for existing. Another example of Scorsese using the camerawork to reveal the spiritual implications of Travis’ psychological state occurs in a famous shot towards the end of the film. Travis has just killed several pimps, but he himself has been shot and gravely injured. As the police walk in to examine the scene, Travis is sitting on a couch. He puts his finger to his head as if it were a gun, suggesting that the police put him out of his misery. The camera slowly begins to dolly backward and zoom out, moving out of the room and surveying the carnage and destruction that Travis has caused. The camera continues to move out of the building to reveal a large crowd gathering to see what the commotion is. The camera continues to rise and zoom out, until it is high in the sky. Like Travis, the camera is becoming increasingly detached from the world as it moves closer to the afterlife. Travis looks like he is going to die the way he lived; detached from the world, without a reason for existing. Of course, he doesn’t end up dying, and is even hailed as a hero. The audience wonders, however, whether Travis’ heroic status will only isolate him further from society, especially given that he now has to live with his “noble” actions—actions which amounted to little more than mass murder. These reflections, even though they are based upon style, do not reveal themselves upon first viewing, but instead must be analyzed after the initial viewing experience, in conjunction with thematic and theological reflections.
Like all great art, Taxi Driver does not provide its audience with any easy answers. Through film, Scorsese attempts to convey the fact that the world is a messy, sinful place, and it is often difficult to find God in the midst of our own depravity. A critic can examine how he conveys this messiness through his use of theme. In particular, through a discussion of “God’s lonely man,” the nature of our destiny, and the influence of society on our individuality, he conveys that our desire to do good is often oppressed by the evil in the world around us, that we are often on our own in a world of darkness and that the fires of hell are awaiting those who cannot find the light. This messiness can also be seen by examining the real-life social and cultural implications of the film. In particular, the film’s influence on John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only is the world a messy place, but art, for better or worse, can sometimes influence the larger culture around us. In the midst of all of this, however, God can still use the power of art, created by sinful people, to influence peoples’ lives for the better. On a human level, Taxi Driver provides a kind of transcendence that allows us to re-examine not only our motivations for our actions, but also our actions themselves, and how they can influence others for either good or ill. On a holy level, I have personally experienced the power of Transcendence through Taxi Driver. The film has allowed me to re-examine my Christian mindset and realize that my faith walk is often filled with judgment and hypocrisy. From a critical theological perspective, Taxi Driver is perhaps best examined by “staying within the film.” Scorsese uses the visual design of the film to convey Travis’ status as “God’s lonely man,” as well as to convey that perhaps there is someone out there who is keeping a close eye on all that we do. In the end, sin has caused a big mess, and it’s going to take a big God to clean it up. In the meantime, we need to be patient and hope that, someday, God will deliver the world from injustice and save us all from ourselves. It only took a depraved, vigilante New York City taxi driver to help remind me of this.
In case you were wondering, yes, Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score is the best ever. Here’s the evidence: