Taxi Driver: Philosophical influences in the film

I recently watched the movie Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese, and starring Robert De Niro. Having watched Joker twice while it was still in the theaters, this movie had been on my to-watch list since then, courtesy of several friends suggesting it. It is an American psychological thriller/drama that follows the story of Travis Bickle, a disturbed Vietnam war veteran, who takes up a job as a taxi driver to occupy himself, and events in his life that follow.

The movie has received massive hype for its direction, acting performances, plotline, and social commentary. Set in an immoral and decaying New York City, it opens your eyes to just a few of the horrors that pervaded the streets of New York back in the 70s — extreme racism, toxic masculinity and underage prostitution being just a few of them.

However, quite apart from social commentary and the thrill of psychology, there is an angle to the film that has probably not been explored a lot — the philosophical angle. The movie is bursting with references to Existentialist texts written by famed authors such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. As these authors have made up a bulk of what I have been reading throughout the quarantine, I found it fascinating to connect the dots between the texts and the movie, and this article is an attempt at a philosophical analysis of the movie.

Before getting into the meat of things, first, a few words on Existentialism.

What is Existentialist philosophy?

Existential philosophy is an extremely wide set of doctrines to be confined to one definition, or a specific set of definitions. Rather, all existentialist authors have had their own interpretation and definition of it. For the sake of this article, I shall delve a little bit only into philosophies of authors which are relevant to the article — Dostoevsky, Sartre and to a smaller extent, Camus.

From among the many existentialist messages given by Dostoevsky in his books,, the one recurring theme is that of individualism. Part of Dostoevsky’s doctrine is the emphasis on self, and being authentic and true to the self. The self has to be accepted in all its ugliness and wretchedness (more on this later), and blindly following broad ideologies which you yourself will be unable to accept will only cause you intense psychological torment.

Sartre’s existentialist tenets talk about the burden and responsibility that come with being a species gifted, or cursed, with free-will. That man alone is responsible for his choices and where those choices consequently lead him, is at once a liberating and a crippling statement, and most of Sartre’s fiction starred protagonists torn just between those two — liberating freedom and crippling depression. Another key tenet is the inherent meaninglessness of life, but of mankind’s responsibility to find meaning in it by making their own choices.

But enough about philosophy. Let’s start talking about the movie, and the philosophy will be expounded upon a lot more in the context of the movie and the parallels it draws with two particular works of fiction.

Here are the major existentialist influences and tributes to philosophers of old that I found in the movie:

  1. Travis’ feeling of superiority:

Existentialist characters in Dostoevsky’s and Sartre’s fiction have many common traits; the existentialist feels superior to other beings, and looks down upon them, because he alone understands the inherent meaninglessness of things that other common people strive for — better jobs, more money etc. The existentialist’s knowledge of the bleakness of the world puts them on a pedestal inside their own mind, and often brings them to loathe and despise their fellow mankind. Now think about Travis Bickle’s monologues at various points in the movie — where he refers to the nocturnal inhabitants of New York City as ‘scum of the Earth’ several times and when he shouts at Betsy that ‘she’s just like the rest of them and will rot in hell’ being just two examples out of many. Travis isn’t shown to be a religious fanatic, yet his imperious judgement of others based on how he perceives them is clear — this is again something consistent with existential philosophy, given that several devout christians AND atheists have been proponents of existentialism. His relationships with Betsy (a clerk in a politicians’ office) and Iris (an underage prostitute), while ill-defined, clearly come from a place of moral high-ground on Travis’ part. He wants to ‘save’ these women — from drudgery and prostitution, respectively — not as a fellow human-being, but as someone who is much above them, not very different from perceiving himself as a God trying to save the hapless by ‘smiting the wicked’ (which he also does). All this is much more than indicative of Travis’ perceived superiority to the rest of the society.

2. Travis’ self-obsession:

Writing a diary religiously. Shunning other drivers’ company. Hell, taking a woman out on a first date to an adult movie! Travis Bickle is quite clearly unable to think from a perspective different from his own. This is, yet again, a very common trait with existentialist characters in novels — they are supremely self-obsessed, because of their feeling of superiority. Add in their belief in the meaninglessness of human relationships, and reading about the extreme alienation that these characters feel from society is akin to living at a depth of 30,000 feet underwater, with your eyes popped out and your eardrums burst. Who does isolation of that kind leave you with? Yourself, of course! And the self becomes the overwhelming centre of attention of these characters. That is again, quite keenly portrayed in the movie, and is another existentialist theme that pervades the movie.

3. Difficulty in forming relationships:

As a result of the superiority and the self-obsession, Travis firstly shuns any kind of human relationships, and when he tries to build one, he finds it extremely difficult. One example has already been mentioned earlier — his date with Betsy, where he takes her to an adult movie, which turns out to be a total disaster. In more than one scene, Travis is shown shunning the company of fellow drivers while sitting with them at a diner. Another example is when Betsy ‘dumps’ him, he tries to talk things out with Wiz, another driver who works for the same company as Travis, and who is usually sought out by the cabbies for life advice. Travis, though, can’t even articulate what he’s feeling — all he can say is, ‘I feel real down,’ ‘I feel like I wanna go out and, and, and..’ and ‘I’m getting some real bad ideas’. Even his relationship with Iris is centered around one thing — ‘saving’ her from her predicament. While an admirable ideal to have, the place where that ideal’s coming from — his supremacy — and how it is the founding base of the relationship, is toxic to watch. Travis’ difficulty in forming relationships with other people is somewhat reminiscent of Meursault from Camus’ The Stranger, and The Underground Man (more on him soon) from Notes From Underground.

4. The wretchedness of individualism and existence:

Several of Dostoevsky’s works underline the importance of being true to self. But the first step in being honest with the self is acknowledging the self for both the good things and the bad things. And thinking about your own faults, shortcomings, and focusing on your dark side can be quite a crippling experience. Nobody portrays this better than The Underground Man in Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, who accepts that he is a wretched human being who takes pleasure in inflicting pain and humiliation on others, and with this realisation, is utterly crippled from ever doing anything good, even if the desire to do that good has originated in his heart of its own accord, without any ulterior motive. In Taxi Driver, the wretchedness of existence is instead shown in other people rather than in Travis himself — think about the pimps, the druggies, a 12-year-old girl who prostitutes herself and smokes pot, and is moreover a victim of Stockholm Syndrome and in love with her ‘kidnapper’, the pimp. Existence doesn’t get more depressing than this. The camera thoroughly explores the dark side of humanity via Travis’ viewpoint, and Taxi Driver is a stark portrait of the worst things about mankind.

5. The fickleness of society:

One way of looking at Travis’ crime is that it is born of anger. Much like in Erostratus (detailed in later points), Travis fails in killing his first target, the Senator for whom Betsy had worked, and then ends up shooting someone else entirely. Actually, a bunch of people. But the point is, Iris and her pimp were nowhere near his thoughts (or at least it wasn’t shown) while he shaved his head and prepared himself to take a life. It might have been a rage crime, born out of frustration of the failed attempt on the Senator’s life. If the final scene of the movie was indeed a reality and not a dying Travis’ imagination, then the city has just adulated a killer who murdered 3 people in a blind rage, regardless of the effects — Iris getting her ‘freedom’ — that action produced. It’s an interesting ethical dilemma, but the point stands. Also think about the horror that same society would have recoiled with, had Travis’ initial plan of murdering the Senator succeeded.

These were the 5 major existentialist themes that I analysed in the movie. Besides these, though, there’s a bunch of other stuff that is pretty much like a doff of the hat by the writers to Sartre and Dostoevsky, intentional or unintentional, that I’d like to point out:

6. The plot:

Erostratus, a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre, focuses on a man who is dedicated to hating humanity. He looks down upon mankind as he would upon insects. Needless to say, he wishes to quash them under his heel. This man procures a gun, and decides to murder 6 random people, one each for every bullet in the revolver, and is exhilarated by the sense of masculinity and power that he derives from the gun. So much so that despite being impotent, he hires a prostitute and asks her to pleasure herself and parade around naked in front of him. However, he fails out of a lack of nerve to kill the first person he highlights, and runs away in a blind panic, instead killing off a random person.

Notes from Underground, a classic by Dostoevsky, features a man who goes to a brothel, drunk, and instead tries to help his hired prostitute escape, by outlining how terrible her life would be in a few years. He invites her to his place, but eventually ends up betraying her horribly because of his crippling sense of being unable to do anything good.

Gun, prostitute, hatred of humanity — Sounds at least partly familiar?

7. Attempt on a socialist’s life:

This is the one point that is probably the most coincidental out of all of these, and yet it was the one that actually encouraged me to write this blog :P. The Senator portrayed in the movie is forever proclaiming ‘We are the people’, and how he would go about doing things that were in the favour of the majority, how the few would no longer rule as they wanted. At its most basic level, I interpret that as a form of socialism. And the interesting part is, Dostoevsky hated socialism and socialists, hated them with a passion. The fact that Travis’ initial target — for reasons that were probably not political, admittedly — was a socialist, seemed to me to be the subtlest doff of the hat by the writers to Dostoevsky, from whose book the story seemed to borrow so much. Might not be true, but it was a fun fact that jumped out at me at the end.

There’s so much more to write about and analyse in this film — a prostitute being the central character that caused the mayhem at the end entirely without any fault of her own, the toxic masculinity portrayed throughout the movie, the contradictions that Travis is filled with. And yet, I feel it’s better to pause here, for if this goes on a while longer, it’ll probably turn off even the brave few who’ll try to soldier on till the end.

Tl;dr — Taxi Driver is a great movie, well worth all the hype it has got over the years. Go watch it if you haven’t already. It is influenced by a bunch of philosophical books and authors, particularly Sartre’s Erostratus and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. For the analysis, read the whole post :P