(from the Taxi Driver Screenplay, 1976/written by Paul Schrader)
Despite the fictional screenwriting teacher’s declaration in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation that “God help you if you use voice overs,” Paul Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi Driver is one of many highly successful and popular films to utilize such methods for the expression of interior monologue.
In Taxi Driver, interior monologue is used specifically to guide the audience through the psychological issues that protagonist Travis (Robert DeNiro) battles with throughout the film as he expresses them in his personal journal. As Schrader wrote of Travis in the screenplay itself, “His deformities are psychological, not physical.”
Travis early on expresses his indifference towards working his taxi shift in the seedy parts of town and with the “spooks”, but this attitude slowly degenerates into one of intolerance and believing that “they’re [the people he sees at night] all animals anyway.” As Schrader puts it in his screenplay, “Travis believes he is cursed and therefore he is.”
The main issue here is a man who isn’t properly taking care of himself besides monetarily (he works 70-80 hours a week)—his apartment is in disarray, he eats pie, sugar cereal with added sugar, white bread, drinks coffee and brandy, works nights, and complains (via voice overs) of his sleeplessness. Here is a man who could benefit from some holistic health advice, but instead he frequents porno theaters, then nonchalantly brings his new and beautiful friend named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), without any thought of possible repercussions, to a porn movie. She quickly walks out, which is the end of their relationship. This only exacerbates Travis’ psychological tailspin.
Travis writes in his journal after the botched movie outing, “May 8, 1972. My life has taken another turn again. The days move along with regularity...“ He then proceeds to be rejected by Betsy on the street, send her flowers which she “doesn’t receive”, and call her with no response. Fed up, he barges in on her at work and causes a scene, which is broken up by the straight-shooting, normal, harmless-seeming male coworker of Betsy’s. This experience is particularly harmful to Travis because he projected onto Betsy all that he wanted her to be: a serene fountain of beauty and perfection amidst a chaotic urban jungle of filth and despair. He thought she was “different” in the same way he considers himself to be. Instead, she is just an average (except, perhaps, by her beauty) young woman working in the normal, daytime, workaday world. Travis writes in his journal, which the audience hears as voice over, “I realize now how much she is like the others, so cold and distant. Many people are like that. They are like a union.” It is classic “Me against the world” mentality, which explains his perpetual internal monologue about loneliness
So he buys guns and practices aiming and shooting them with no bullets at the mirror, slipping them out of his sleeve, and he gets in shape through push-ups and pull-ups. “Every muscle must be tight”, he writes. He goes to see a prostitute whose name, after much prying, is Iris. Then he attempts to assassinate a senator who is also a presidential candidate, but fails. The audience is left to assume that the senator’s campaign slogan, “We are the people” is meant to explain the otherwise elusive reason behind Travis’ motivation to do such a thing. In other words, if the senator “Is the people”, and the people are who Travis hates, then perhaps that explains Travis’ motivation to kill the candidate. Otherwise, why would Travis assault a senator who is, by all intents and purposes, above “the people”, especially the miscreants that Travis despises?
Schrader utilizes voice over towards the end of the film when Travis writes to his family and lies about the happenings in his life. This marks the beginning of what Travis intends to be the end of his life and his life’s purpose, but, as we all know, life doesn’t always unfold as planned.
He visits Iris and gets in a gun fight with her pimp and co., which ends in three men dead, Iris severely rattled, and Travis pulling the trigger on an empty gun to his head. The police come, and Travis is heralded as a hero by at least Iris’ family.
In the final scene, all of the internal monologue and Travis’ emotional transformation comes to a head when Betsy rides in his cab and makes a vague pass at him, but he just drives away with his classic slight grin on his face. This scene can be interpreted multiple ways. Was it a figment of his imagination? Was it a dream? A hallucination? Was it real? If it’s real, has Travis learned to embrace his lifelong loneliness? Has it dissipated? Does he view Betsy as too much of a conformist for his taste? Is he bitter that he finally reached out to one of “the people” (simply because, let’s be honest fellas, she was beautiful) and got rejected? Or, perhaps, as every man has wanted to do at one point or another, Travis was reveling in the slightly twisted satisfaction of rejecting someone who formerly rejected him.
(Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, 1976/ Columbia Pictures)