Mental Illness in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver


The neo-noir psychological thriller film Taxi Driver (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader, stands as one of the most powerful films in American cinematic history. Its depiction of mental illness, as experienced by its main character Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro), offers a gritty and unfiltered view of the subject, set against the backdrop of a decaying New York City. Here we delve into how the movie portrays mental illness and the implications of its representation.

Travis Bickle: The Embodiment of Urban Alienation

From the outset, it’s evident that Travis Bickle is disconnected from the world around him. He suffers from sleep deprivation, a condition that exacerbates his mental instability. His job as a taxi driver enables his insomnia and further ensnares him in the web of urban decay and societal detachment. His cab becomes both his refuge and prison, allowing him to observe the world without truly engaging in it.

Bickle’s observations reveal a city plagued by crime, prostitution, and moral degradation. This environment acts as a mirror to Bickle’s own deteriorating mental state. The more corruption he witnesses around him, the more his own mind seems to unravel.

The Vietnam Veteran and PTSD

Bickle’s past as a Marine in the Vietnam War offers hints of a possible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While the film doesn’t overtly diagnose him, many of his behaviors, such as hyper-vigilance, anger outbursts, and social withdrawal, align with PTSD symptoms as well as schizotypal personality disorder. His flashbacks, though not explicit, are subtly implied through his reactions to everyday events. The violent environment of New York City may constantly remind him of the battlefield, preventing him from escaping his traumatic memories.

Seeking Purpose and Salvation

One of the most poignant elements of Taxi Driver is Travis’s quest for purpose and redemption. His infatuation with Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), a campaign worker, seems to stem from his view of her as a beacon of purity in a corrupted world. However, his inability to connect with her on a deeper emotional level and his socially inappropriate behavior indicate his lack of understanding of societal norms.

Similarly, Travis’s attempt to “save” the underage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) is a manifestation of his desire for purpose and self-redemption. Iris is at the mercy of Sport, her pimp played by Harvey Keitel, and Travis is determined to rescue her. While his intentions may seem noble on the surface, his methods and the violent path he takes reveal a deeply troubled mind. He becomes a self-appointed avenger, attempting to cleanse the city of its scum and perceived sins, even if it means resorting to violence.

Isolation and Paranoia

Throughout the film, Travis’s social isolation becomes increasingly evident. He writes in his diary, frequents adult cinemas, and indulges in monologues. The famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene reveals a mind that’s grappling with identity, worth, and a sense of reality. This deep-seated loneliness and need for validation culminate in violent outbursts. His paranoia becomes more pronounced as the movie progresses, leading him to buy weapons and train obsessively.

Public Perception of Mental Illness

The climax of Taxi Driver is both tragic and ironic. After his violent rampage, instead of being condemned, Travis is hailed as a hero by the media and the public. This twist offers a damning commentary on society’s perceptions of mental illness and violence. It underscores how, often, society fails to recognize or understand the nuances of mental health, choosing instead to focus on the sensationalist aspects of a person’s actions.


Taxi Driver remains a masterclass in cinema not only for its technical brilliance but also for its complex and nuanced portrayal of mental illness. The film doesn’t offer solutions but rather paints a haunting picture of a man’s descent into madness, exacerbated by urban decay and societal neglect.

Travis Bickle is a reflection of the darker aspects of society, representing the many who grapple with mental disorders and find no respite. While the film is set in the 1970s, its themes resonate even today, urging viewers to understand and empathize with the silent struggles of those grappling with their mental well-being.