It seems like so long ago, but at one time, Martin Scorsese was a director struggling to make it in the mainstream. He was angry at the world, at life, at Hollywood, and then he met Paul Schrader. Schrader shared Scorsese's anger and frustration. He channeled it into a script for Taxi Driver.
Together, they created a movie that garnered Academy Award nominations and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
It was a stunning portrait of mental illness, toxicity, and violence—a portrait of which we've seen in homages over the years, especially with Joker.
Today I wanted to go over the controversial ending to Taxi Driver and talk about what actually happens at the end of the movie. There are lot of Taxi Driver interpretations, so let's go through them together.
Table of Contents
Taxi Driver Movie Summary
Before we dig too deep into the Taxi Driver interpretations, let's go over the film's summary and some Taxi Driver characters important to the story. Who wrote Taxi Driver? Paul Schrader. And it was directed by Martin Scorsese. They told the story of a Vietnam veteran who is suffering from insomnia. This disturbed loner, known as Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), takes a job as a New York City cabbie. He works the night shift, the most dangerous and terrible time. While out in the world, he yearns to clean it up, seeing filth first hand.
Still, there is beauty in the world. Travis meets campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and becomes obsessed with the idea of saving her and the world. Things with Betsy go south and he has no idea how to get back at her, so he begins plotting to assassinate the presidential candidate she works for. But as Travis sees the flaws in this plan, he decides to heal himself and the city, so, then directing his attentions toward rescuing 12-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from her pimp (Harvey Keitel).
Travis buys some weapons and begins an assault to save Iris, getting wounded in the process. The movie fades to black, fading up on newspapers that say he saved the girl and she was returned to her family. We also hear a voiceover from the girl's father who thanks Travis for saving her life. He gets back in his cab and patrols New york, picking up Betsy, finally back on her good side.
But what actually happens at the end of Taxi Driver?
Taxi DriverCredit: 20th Century Fox
The 'Taxi Driver' Ending Explained
Taxi Driver is the story of Travis Bickle. He's a Vietnam war veteran with significant PTSD whose toxic lifestyle is taking a mental toll on him. He becomes obsessed with a woman who works for a politician, a young hooker, and with getting justice against the cruel world. This all leads him to change his lifestyle, training for revenge, buying some illegal firearms, and plotting to assassinate a politician.
When that doesn't go his way, Bickle doubles down, assassinating a pimp and his cronies, effectively saving a young hooker. But when the police arrive he begs them to deliver the killing blow.
What happens next is where the controversy kicks in.
Who is Travis Bickle? Was it all a dream?
There's a large contingency of people who think Travis suffers a cruel death at the end of the movie. That his brain fabricates the letter from the young girl's parents and that his "heroism" is actually a projection as he drifts toward death.
Maybe heaven is Cybill Shepherd entering his cab and accepting him for who he can be, not who he is.
Are there context clues that support this idea? Well, how about Travis mimicking suicide while the cops draw their guns, asking to die, asking to be punished for his sins. Maybe all this death was his penance, and the ending is his mind letting him off the hook.
Roger Ebert thought it's possible. He wrote:
"Are we experiencing his dying thoughts? Can the sequence be accepted as literally true? I am not sure there can be an answer to these questions. The end sequence plays like music, not drama."
That seems plausible to me. Especially since the final moments are pure perfection for this psychopath. He not only gets the accolades, but he gets the girl. AND he gets the chance to turn her down this time because he theoretically has so many women throwing themselves at him that she doesn't matter.
He's not prosecuted for attempted assassination and he drives off into the night like Batman.
But what if that has more to say about us than about Travis.
Who is Travis Bickle? Is he actually a hero?
What if society is so messed up that these final moments are damnation of us? We value blood and violence over the admittance of mental anguish and trauma.
Travis Bickle thinks society is sick, and his diagnosis is correct. Through his return to the most basic elements of human nature, fight or flight, he becomes more in tune with the kinds of heroes the media likes. We fetishize bad guys (see Joker) and their beliefs.
Unlike Palantine, Bickle truly goes out of his way to protect real people and to clean up the streets. And the media loves him for it. When the movie ends, Travis realizes that heaven is actually on earth, and his twisted sense of morality is lauded in the media.
That gets him in good with the girl, but it gives him the confidence to go after other fish in the sea. After all, he's famous now. One of the most famous critics of all time, Pauline Kail, had this to say about Taxi Driver's ending:
"It's a real slap for us when see Travis at the end looking pacified. He's got the rage out of his system — for the moment, at least — and he's back at work, picking up passengers in front of the St. Regis. It's not that he's cured, but that the city is crazier than he is."
Maybe we're all even sicker than Travis.
The team behind the movie thinks so.
The 'Taxi Driver' Interpretation From the Creators
While I think once a movie is made, it's up for the public to decipher what it means to them, the opinion of its creators always matters. For this Taxi Driver interpretation, let's dig into some interviews.
In recent years, Rober De Niro has mentioned he'd love to return to Taxi Driver to see what Travis Bickle is up to now. Especially in the world of Social Media and internet fame. Is he still killing or has he laid dormant enough and is ready to explode once more?
Scorsese and Schrader both think Travis survives in the end and becomes a lauded hero. Schrader based the character on a woman who tried to kill Gerald Ford and made the cover of Newsweek. So for him, the media consumption and coronation of Travis felt real to America.
In a conversation with Sofia Coppola, Schrader said:
"A number of people have attributed the ending of Taxi Driver as a fantasy. I don't have a problem with that ending, but it's not what I intended."
Scorsese has his back. On the director commentary for Taxi Driver, which amazing, Scorsese said that Travis made it out.
What can I learn from the Taxi Driver ending?
When you're sitting to make your movie, think about how the ending matters. You want people to care about the characters and care about what happens to them. Sometimes an ambiguous ending causes audience introspection.
What you need to take away is having a deliberate ending.
Taxi Driver ends this way deliberately. It makes you think. We don't just fade out on a random line or experience. We leave these characters at this moment because it's time for you to understand what the movie means to you.
Does your story do that? How can you make your story do that for you?
What's next? Dive into the ending of Inception!
We take a crack at deciphering the ending of Inception and explaining what the movie Inception is about. This is, Inception explained!
Click for more.