The words “taxi” and “driver” have never been the same since 1976, a year in which a truly revolutionary collaborative effort between a brilliant director, a brilliant script, and a brilliant cast culminated in one of the best films the industry has ever seen. Taxi Driver was, is, and will continue to be one of the most shocking, intense, and altogether arresting films ever conceived. The following is my interpretation of the film’s ambiguous ending, as taken from a paper from my last film class(please forgive the formal language and blocky presentation that papers so often require).
Observing the technical elements that compose the final scene of the film is key to understanding that Travis Bickle has indeed died and the concluding moments of the film are false projections. For instance, as Travis makes his way through the building towards Iris, the action onscreen literally slows down to a crawling pace through the use of various slow-motion shots. Editing the shots in such a manner compliments the rhythm of the film at this point in Bickle’s mental descent; this is the final act in his life and it is a harried, violent, chaotic one in which he chooses to transition to the next stage of his life, which is death. The slowed-down, plodding presentation of the action leading up to Bickle’s death on the upstairs couch mimics the almost dreamlike state in which Bickle’s final moment’s exist, combined with the aforementioned echoed sound indicating that a surreal state (namely death) is imminent for Travis. The camera movements during and after this scene also indicate the death of Travis Bickle, what with the camera hovering above him during what are the last moments of his life, floating slowly away from the carnage and into the streets, becoming a point-of-view shot from the implied perspective of his soul departing his body. In the camera mimicking the motion of Bickle’s departing soul, Scorsese seems to take note from the writings of philosopher John Locke, in accordance with Locke’s statement that “the body, as well as the soul, goes to the making of a man…wherein the soul, with all its princely thoughts about it, would not make another man” . To view this situation under Locke’s theories about the body and soul, Travis’ actions in saving Iris define him in that moment, but in implying that his soul is departing his body through the camera’s perspective and motions suggests the soul is a separate entity leaving the physical body which committed such profound violence.
Observing the technical elements after the camera departs the scene of Travis’ violent outburst at the end of the film also suggests that he is dead, or at least in a suspended state of the dying process. As Betsy enters the cab with Travis, the cinematography and visual presentation of the film once again becomes extremely atmospheric; odd-angled shots are used to observe Betsy in the backseat, namely a shot in which her face appears in the rear-view mirror at an angle, surrounded by dreamlike, surreal Bokeh lights that punctuate the empty darkness that envelops the rear-view the mirror. In Travis’ mind, this view of the woman who is assumed to be the object of the strongest opposite-sex attraction he had ever experienced comes like a vision of solace in his last moments of life. She is physically behind him, suggesting an opportunity he felt strongly about that passed him by, but he views her while looking forward into a mirror, suggesting a subconscious placement of companionship at the forefront of Travis’ desires in his living state manifesting itself in the dreamlike state of his dying process. Travis’ conversation with Betsy at this point is also reflective of what his desires were during his living state, seeing as their conversation is empty, superficial, and sustained with an almost submissive tone in the usually-dominant Betsy’s voice. Suggesting that Betsy, who we have been exposed to as an intelligent, powerful, and deeply analytical and complex person, would be so easily drawn back towards a man she despised simply because he is now considered a hero for his violent actions is absurd. This would be in contrast to the type of person we had seen her as before. She clearly made up her mind that she did not want anything to do with Travis, and to imply that something so superficial could completely change the mind of a static character such as Betsy only further cements the idea that this vision of her is fabricated.
To even suggest that Travis has lived to become a normal, functioning member of society after such a violent descent into madness is in direct contradiction to the character we had seen him become as well; he has distanced himself so far from his reality that there is no way he could possibly have assimilated normally back into it after the shooting—life was already meaningless for Travis pre-shooting, and his action to save Iris was his last attempt to try and give meaning to his pointless, forgotten existence. In reference to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s description of personality and identity, Travis can be seen existing somatically (in the sense that he lived within one physical body throughout the film), but can be psychologically viewed as an entirely different person from where he was at the film’s beginning. Having him transform so drastically into a kind, seemingly stable person during this final scene is simply not plausible within the archetype of a character Travis exists within.
The final technical implications that the closing scenes of the film have not occurred within Travis’ physical reality can be seen in the depiction of the moments proceeding Betsy’s exit from Travis’ taxi. Travis looks into his rearview mirror and observes Betsy exiting his line of vision, exiting his life, and ultimately exiting any version of reality (this suspended one or any reality that could have existed had he lived) within Travis’ existence. He drives away from her, driving away from a life he never attained, and a strange noise sounds as he looks into his rearview mirror once again, mimicking the snapping realization in this surreal state of his dying mind that he will never have this life of happiness. He simply drives away into the empty abyss of the city that ruined him, becoming his “job” (as Wizard implies) within a city that will continue on forever and ultimately retain everything Travis despises as suggested by the ambient light, atmosphere, and overall never-ending ambiguous darkness punctuated by beams of light that remain throughout the credits. Travis’ death is necessary and equated here with what would have remained if he had lived; a continuous assimilation into the darkness of the city he abhorred.
In order to understand the significance of the ending of the film beyond examining technical aspects (further than simply being a fabrication of the protagonist’s mind) it is also important to understand Travis Bickle as a character. To understand Travis as a character is to comprehend the significance of his death as a result of his violent rampage. We are first introduced to Travis as a seemingly normal person. He is a common, identifiable man simply working as a cab driver. But as the film progresses, it is clear that Travis is not what some would consider a “normal” person at all. He quickly descends into a violent and offensive mentality inspired by the effects of society upon him. Taxi Driver is ultimately a film about becoming a disturbed isolationist not only from a functioning society but also from innate human practices such as sexuality and companionship.
Socially, Travis connects with people that are intangible to him. He is a constant observer, treating women as alien creatures along with his cabbie buddies that speak of women’s “rouge” as a foreign object. He describes Betsy as “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen” and treats her as such; an untouchable deity whom he decides to analyze and bring down to his level (as evident in the “dirty movie” scene) instead of attend to what would normally be considered a woman’s needs on a stereotypical courtship. For this reason, Betsy becomes an unreachable, alien creature to him and he seems to fall more in love with the idea of being with Betsy rather than the person herself. Iris is similarly an untouchable person in Travis’ life. She is a child prostitute. She is a young girl who is by all means still growing physically and psychologically. The naivety of Travis’ actions to “save” her shines through here, seeing as a girl of this age who has already experienced such disturbing exposure to sexuality will most likely never be fully saved from the psychological trauma she will undoubtedly experience as a result of her exposure to meaningless (and not to mention criminal) sexuality at such a young age. In both cases of personal connections we see Travis form throughout the film, the end result is not assured; however, the only conclusive aspect of his life is the fact that he will die, and dying in an attempt to give meaning to his empty existence is the only thing that makes sense within the context of Travis’ life.
In becoming this isolated observer, Travis takes on a role that subconsciously leads to his ultimate conclusion; death. Since his life is already metaphorically a dead-end, death emerges as the only plausible outcome. His violent actions are the only way he will truly be heard and recognized, with his death being a byproduct of his broken life. Travis continuously proclaims the city he resides in is filled with scum. In his writings, John Locke ponders the question of personal identity by stating “your identity in this sense consists of roughly what makes you unique as an individual and different from others. Or is it the way you see or define yourself, or the network of values and convictions that structure your life?”. Taking this musing a bit further within the context of Taxi Driver, the character of Wizard says “…you do a thing and that’s what you are…you get a job and you become the job…you got no choice anyway, we’re all fucked, more or less”. Applying this statement to Travis, after rejection from Betsy as well as drawing inspiration from his desire to save Iris and an ultimate defiance to remain living the static life that he does, Travis takes on a role of the offense; he deliberately seeks to solve his problems with violence, in this case, he plans to save Iris through the practice of a violent crime. This responsibility, in accordance with what Wizard says to him, involves death. In essence, his life’s “job” that he has now taken on involves death; therefore, dying at the end of the film serves as the only reasonable solution since dying would validate Winter’s ideology about ultimately becoming one’s job.
In pursuit of this newfound job, Travis essentially deconstructs his existence in the midst of his descent. He kicks over his television (his primary connection to the outside world in his apartment), he drastically alters his appearance, and even fabricates an alter lifestyle where he works for the government. In changing so much about himself, he loses touch with the minute glimpse of the shell of a person that remained of his former self when we are first introduced to him. There is no concrete existence that the words “Travis Bickle” describe. We have seen him go through so much change and devolution physically and psychologically that the person he really is is actually never clear throughout the film’s entirety. He is definted by his actions, not by who he really is as a person. The final scene brings this idea of Travis having no true identity to a head in the sense that Travis, although on what he considers to be a heroic mission, technically commits murder. The law sees no black and white; Travis killed three men, regardless of if he was saving a young girl or not. The setting in which he killed the men is important to this idea as well. He committed this crime within the ghettos of the city, where the “scum” he continuously speaks about existed. The reality of the aftermath of the situation would not be a newly-attained heroic status for Travis, but rather death or, if he had lived, imprisonment. Ultimately, Travis dies after committing a crime, within the scum-infested streets he despises. In that sense, Travis’ identity is forever lost, seeing as he died literally and metaphorically within the realm of the “scum”, becoming just another criminal and losing any trace of identity he retained as well as his physical being in his death.
After thorough examination of technical elements as well as analyzing Travis Bickle as a character within the film Taxi Driver, it is clear that the only way to come close to forming closure about the film’s ending is to assume that Travis has died and the events that comprise the final moments of the film are indeed false occurrences within his dying mind. From visual touches such as the dreamlike cinematography and mysterious lights (amongst other things) that compliment the final scenes of the film to the realization that Travis structured his life so that the only conclusive outlet would be death, understanding Taxi Driver becomes more conclusive—although no less effective—through treating the final scenes as indicators that Travis has died.