In “Taxi Driver,” What are the Existentialist Themes?


One of the most common elements in the works of existentialism is the theme of isolation and self-loathing. Taxi Driver (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader, stars Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, a socially awkward and mentally unstable Vietnam veteran who spends his sleepless nights driving a New York City cab. Bickle resembles the existential hero in that he cannot summon normal emotions about day-to-day events and is often extremely isolated. “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s only man,” the antihero states.

Existentialism is a philosophical method of thinking that views humans, with will and consciousness, as being in a world of objects which do not have those qualities. The fact that humans are conscious of their mortality, and must make decisions about their life is what existentialism is all about. (Bullock, Alan & Trombley, Stephen 1999. The new Fontana dictionary of modern thought. 3rd ed, Fontana, London. p297/8 ISBN 0-00-255871-8)

Similar to the protagonists in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and Albert Camus’ The Stranger, with the first two being told exclusively through journal entries, Travis excessively chronicles his everyday life and strong disdain, or at the very least, indifference towards his fellow man. The Stranger’s Meursault, a Mediterranean native who basks little in the culture, even shows apathy at the news of his own mother’s death.

Like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Travis is somewhat of a public servant. “I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn. I take ‘em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some wont even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.” Reoccurring threads throughout existentialist literature are characters that work in professions where they feel disassociated with the rest of the society, such as in the works of Franz Kafka. Examples include The Metamorphosis’ Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, The Trial’s Josef K., a chief financial officer of a bank, and The Castle’s K., who passes himself off as a land surveyor.

Also, like the unnamed protagonist in Notes from Underground, as well as Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, another Dostoyevsky classic, Travis strikes up an unlikely relationship with a young prostitute, and like his existential predecessors, urges them to change their ways. Perhaps, this is an attempt for these tormented characters to get others to do what they cannot, as well as buying the companionship they are unable to obtain in their everyday lives.

Until the age of thirty, Nausea’s Antoine Roquentin has led a life of meaning and purpose. But, now, like Travis, he feels unfulfilled and becomes physically ill at even the thought of everything that once gave him pleasure.

Travis also shares similar motives to another character from another Sartre story, entitled Erostratus, a modern retelling of the titular character and arsonist who destroyed the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World in the fourth-century B.C. Like Erostratus, or Herostratus, depending on the translation, both characters wish to gain fame by means of an evil deed, with Sartre’s character wanting to kill six random strangers, one for each bullet in his revolver, and Travis wanting to kill Senator Charles Palantine, who is running for President of the United States.

However, Travis ruins his shot at the politician and instead decides to take out Iris’ (Jody Foster) pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) and his gang of goons. One of the weapons in Travis’ arsenal is a .357 Magnum. Much emphasis is placed on this particular weapon. It is ironic that it is the same weapon used as Sartre’s agent of chaos in Erostratus and Camus’ Meursault, which he uses to kill an Arab man on the beach and seal his fate: execution by guillotine.

But, instead of being set in the bohemian and working class areas of St. Petersburg and Vienna, the quite French seaport town of Bouville, or the exotic coastline of French Algeria, like in some of existentialism’s most famous works, Taxi Driver is set in the morally bankrupt New York City of the 1970’s, where it’s landscape has made the twisted cabbie indifferent and eventually hostile, but fully aware of his own human condition.

Other films that also explore existentialist themes include: Ingmar Berman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) (about people who feel lonely and sad because they do not fit in); Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie; and Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2. These European films of the 1950s influenced later American films of the 1960s like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967). David O’Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004) tells the tale of a man who hires two existential detectives to solve the mystery of the man’s “coincidence.” The man eventually meets his “other” and is tempted to cross to the dark side of existentialism.