Taxi Driver is an extended close-up of Travis Bickle, its protagonist, and our proximity to him reveals his loneliness. The camera abandons Travis's point of view only twice, once during the scene between Betsy and Tom in the campaign office near the beginning of the film, and again during the scene between Iris and Sport near the end. Travis watches one of these scenes, but only from afar, in his taxi. He can't hear what the other characters say, but he is involved as a voyeur. By keeping us close to Travis at all times, Scorsese lets us see through his eyes, though we never gain a thorough understanding of who Travis really is. In the diner where Travis relaxes with his cabbie coworkers, the camera is rarely where we would expect it to be. Instead of focusing on the conversation, it lingers on two well-dressed black men for a long time. Travis perceives himself to be surrounded by threatening black men in the diner, yet later in the scene, when the camera shows the whole diner, we see that the tables are filled with innocuous people of many races. When the camera acts as Travis's eyes, we have see the world as he does, and we learn something about Travis in the process. In the same diner scene, Travis drops an Alka-Seltzer into a glass of water, and his gaze lingers again. The camera zooms in until all we can see are the bubbles. Travis's attention is again in the wrong place. We are not likely to share Travis's fascinations, but Scorsese obligates us to partake of them temporarily.
The intimacy with Travis that Scorsese forces upon us wouldn't be so successful if Travis weren't to some extent sympathetic. Taxi Driver is, after all, a film about a fundamentally unlikable character. Travis is a racist, murderous, mentally unstable, socially incapable, insomniac war veteran with a deranged hero complex. Yet our intimate view of Travis prevents us from discounting him. We're so close to him that we can feel his embarrassments, paranoia, infatuations, and, most important, his loneliness, as if they were our own. We may not agree with his feelings, and his actions are often surprising and disgusting, but Travis possesses a fundamental loneliness that every human being experiences at some point.
Travis views himself as "God's lonely man," yet the point of "God's Lonely Man," an essay by Thomas Wolfe from which Schrader took this phrase, is that loneliness is a trait that all men possess, even if each man believes his feelings are original and unique. Travis's loneliness, combined with his charisma, makes him fascinating. Travis's racism and violent actions are not endearing, but we can sympathize with his loneliness and with his early attempts to integrate with society. When Travis first asks Betsy on a date, he succeeds at playing the charming young man. His later smiles may seem hysterical or maniacal, but when he walks right up to Betsy's desk and smiles, he is charming. We want him to succeed with Betsy, and we are just as surprised as Betsy is when Travis takes her to a porn film. Like Betsy, we were wrong to believe Travis was innocuous and sympathetic. Travis lives on the extreme outskirts of what is acceptable, but because we know him so intimately, we can sympathize with him even when his actions are unforgivable.
Take a Study Break!