A Psychoanalytic Reading of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver by Clara Frey

A Psychoanalytic Reading of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver by Clara Frey

Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schreber and directed by Martin Scorsese, is a neo-noir thriller that hit American box offices on February 2nd, 1976. Released just a year after the United States pulled out of the war in Vietnam, the film reflects the political and societal instability of America in the 1970s and its repercussions on the psyche of one of its veterans. In 1970s America, crime was on the rise, and the trauma of a war that many veterans perceived as amoral as well as the Watergate scandal had brought about a wave of mistrust for authority figures (Marlantes 2017). 1970s America also allowed the pornographic industries to flourish, partly because the supreme court amended rulings to grant individual districts and communities the right determine what was considered “obscene” under the rule of the law (Chadwick 2017). Because of this, New York became one of the most permissive cities in America in terms of regulations on the pornographic industries. Furthermore, during the filming of Taxi Driver, New York was experiencing a trash collection crisis; ten thousand sanitation workers decided to go on strike (PBS).

Amid this suffering, decay, depravity and violence, Scorsese delves into the tormented psyche of insomniac protagonist Travis Bickel (Robert de Niro), who works as a late-night taxi driver to occupy  his sleepless nights. Psychoanalytic criticism is a lens of literary criticism derived from psychoanalytic therapy. Psychoanalytic therapy, founded by Sigmund Freud, aims to improve mental health by revealing the conscious and unconscious material in a patient’s psyche. Much like psychotherapists analyze the symbolism of objects within their client’s dreams, psychoanalytic criticism analyzes the symbolism within art to illuminate the motivations of its characters (Mitchell & Black 2016). Applying the lens of psychoanalytic criticism to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver reveals the true source of Bickle’s trauma. By analyzing Travis’ inability to dream and his desire for the depravity of New York City, one can uncover the harrowing, deeply American wounds that this troubled cab driver bears.

Travis Bickel’s repressed imaginary world get manifested in his outside reality, revealing deep psychological wounds. Travis is an insomniac, and he takes up a job as a night shift taxi driver in Manhattan to occupy his time. Travis’s chronic inability to sleep forbids him from experiencing the therapeutic effects of dreaming. According to psychoanalysis, the dream serves as a barrier that prevents psychic phenomenon from entering the consciousness. Dreaming also serves to prohibit the rational mind from becoming overcome by an individual’s fantasies (Smith 2023). The dream does not simply revisit absurd events from an individual’s day throughout sleep, but is a product of the psyche differentiating between the conscious and the unconscious (Mitchell & Black 2016). Without his ability to dream, Travis no longer has a barrier prohibiting the unconscious from invading the conscious. His outside world becomes contaminated with elements that should be relegated to the dream world, but, due to his state, infiltrate his perception of reality. Because of this, Travis is drawn to environments where he is able to manifest his tortured imaginary world. He agrees to work in every neighbourhood, even in the ones least favoured by cab drivers. In doing so, he is exposed to the depravity of 1970s New York nightlife. Scene of pimps, prostitutes in gogo-boots and the marquee lights of strip clubs play to composer Bernard Herrmann’s famous score “I Work the Whole City.” Even Travis’s filthy apartment bears witness to the grim inner workings of his mind; famously, a poster reading: “One of these days I’m gonna get organized,” hangs on the wall.

Though Travis’s trauma is not explicitly covered in the film, by using the teachings of psychoanalysis to interpret Scorsese’s cinematic choices it is possible to glean the causes of his inner torment. Travis has lived through the Vietnam War. This he mentions to the employer at the taxi company during his interview, and he wears an impressive scar on his back that is testimony to this harrowing event for American veterans. Scorsese uses the scar as a symbol for the deeper psychological wounds that mar Travis’ mind. During war time, when human beings fear for their lives, the social framework that allows for peaceful coexistence is peeled back. When this happens, brute urges that typically dwell in the unconscious realm can invade the conscious. Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War were frequently subject to sexual violence and rape at the hands of American soldiers. Also, during war time, the American army justified murder and violence as a means to purify the World from the ‘red scare’. The difficulty is that when the Vietnam war ended, a societal order prohibiting the transgression of norms did not return to 1970s America (Marlantes 2017). Travis still bears a fascination with depravity and violence that does not stop haunting him even with the reinstatement of peace in 1975. Travis, throughout the movie, will attempt to ‘purify’ himself of the horrors he has witnessed with acts that paradoxically multiply in their depravity and violence, just as he was taught in the war. He becomes a self-appointed vigilante who takes it upon himself to eliminate the “scum” of society. Travis communicates America’s mistrust in corrupt authority figures when he attempts to murder presidential candidate Senator Palantine. He sees this as a means to cleanse a political system that drove him to commit senseless atrocities in Vietnam. He also fixates on Iris (Jodie Foster), a 13-year-old prostitute, believing that he can rescue her from the world of prostitu- tion. He murders her pimps in a rampage of gory bloodshed, exposing his warped sense of moral duty and perverted belief that these violent acts will purify his tortured soul.

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver serves as a stark portrayal of the psychological disintegration of its protagonist, Travis Bickle, against the backdrop of the tumultuous socio-political landscape of 1970s America. Through the lens of psychoanalytic criticism, the film delves into Travis’s insomniac existence, devoid of dreams that traditionally serve as a psychological barrier, allowing the unconscious to infiltrate his percep- tion of reality. The haunting manifestations of Travis’s repressed imagi- nary world in the gritty streets of New York City reflect the deep-seated wounds inflicted by his experiences in the Vietnam War.

Works Cited

Chadwick, B. (2017, July 26). When New York City was the prostitution capital of the US. New York Post. https://nypost.com/2017/04/22/ when-new-york-was-the-prostitution-capital-of-the-us

Marlantes, K. (2017, January 7). Vietnam: The War that killed trust. The New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/07/opinion/ sunday/vietnam-the-war-that-killed-trust.html

Martin Scorsese, Bernard Herrmann &. (1975) Taxi Driver. USA Mitchell, S. A., & Black, M. J. (2016). Freud and beyond: A history of

modern psychoanalytic thought. BasicBooks.

Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). NYC in Chaos. PBS. https://www.pbs. org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/blackout-gallery/

Smith, Alexandre. 1 December 2023. Interview. Conducted by Clara Frey.

Comments are closed.