Directed by Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver builds to a bloody climax and concludes with a cryptic sequences of events — events that may be in Travis Bickle’s head. When interpreted literally, the 1976 film ends with a lonely taxi driver, Travis Bickle, saving an adolescent prostitute by killing her pimps, and then becoming a New York City hero who seemingly fulfilled his destiny. However, a closer look implies that Travis’ life ends in a figurative hell that he references throughout Taxi Driver.
On the surface, Travis (Robert De Niro) represents the prototypical loner who’s detached from reality. He’s a U.S. Marine who previously served in Vietnam, or at least that’s what he claims, and struggles to connect with acquaintances, such as Wizard (Peter Boyle), and a romantic interest, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign volunteer for presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). During a first date, the Robert De Niro-portrayed title character upsets Betsy upon taking her to a porno movie and painfully showing his naiveté. After being rejected, Travis foreshadows his fate in Taxi Driver by telling Betsy that “You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna die in a hell like the rest of ’em.”
At home, Travis trains and attempts to get organized. He writes in his diary that “loneliness has followed me my whole life,” and informs Wizard that’s he thinking about doing something “bad” after a bizarre encounter with a customer, portrayed by Scorsese, who plans to murder his wife. In Taxi Driver, everything changes for Travis after he spots a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). Now, the Martin Scorsese movie’s antihero has seemingly found a purpose, and plans to help the girl any way he can. “Suddenly, there is a change,” he says, “there has never been any choice for me.” Now experiencing a major existential crisis, Travis prepares for war.
When a militarized Travis shows up at a Palantine rally, wearing a mohawk and aviator shades, he’s left his real identity behind. Earlier, Wizard explains how a man can become his job (in this case, a taxi driver), and now Travis has fully transformed into someone else — the archetypal Man with No Name. Previously, he’d been identified as a suspicious individual after lying to a Secret Service agent during a Palantine rally; in this moment, he tries to assassinate the politician but doesn’t succeed.
This version of Travis (which is one of Robert De Niro’s most memorable movie transformations) suggests that he’s delusional and fully detached from reality. Shortly before the assassination attempt, he writes a letter to his parents and implies that he’s doing “sensitive work” for the government, and that he’s dating Betsy. Travis also tells Iris that he “has to do something for the government,” and that he “might be going a way for a while.” But, he’s merely projecting an image that will allow him to make sense of the world he lives in. “All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go,” Travis writes early on in Taxi Driver. Now, he’s identified that place as a hell on earth.
Travis becomes a fatalist in this superbly-cast Martin Scorsese movie. He believes that he’s supposed to kill Palantine — a man who claims to represent the “the people.” Travis also believes that he’ll save “sweet Iris” by cleaning up the symbolic “filth” that is Matthew, Iris’ pimp (Harvey Keitel). It’s this same frame of mind showcased in Taxi Driver that, unfortunately, inspired John Hinckley Jr.’s real-life assassination attempt on U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In fact, Hinckley was hoping to get the attention of the Taxi Driver actress who portrays Iris, the aforementioned Foster.
In Taxi Driver, Travis kills Matthew and then waits a few moments before ascending into a hell on earth, a New York City building where men pay to have sex with teenage prostitutes. Aesthetically, this entire sequence – which finally sees the ever-growing tension of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver boil over in a memorably gory fashion – was inspired by Scorsese’s admiration of Caravaggio, an Italian Baroque artist known for blending the sacred with the profane (via Rebeller). First, Travis blasts a pimp’s hand and ultimately shoots him in the head. By saving Iris from harm, Travis has eliminated a profane threat and protected a sacred figure. Any one of Scorsese’s visuals could be the premise for a Caravaggio painting, as the Italian artist often incorporated extreme violence into his work, even going so far to depict his own severed head in “David with the Head of Goliath.” As a character, Travis takes a similar approach by painting the walls red (a concept repeated in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 movie The Irishman), and then sacrificing himself. In a slight twist, however, Travis’ plan fails when he runs out of bullets.
Travis dies from his wounds in Taxi Driver after the police arrive; a moment that’s foreshadowed earlier when he suggests that Betsy will “die in a hell like the rest of ’em.” The irony is that Travis becomes one of the pack, a dead criminal who believed that his actions served a higher purpose. Visually, Scorsese shoots from above to remind the audience that they’re looking down on Travis and the other victims who lie in the hell they created. An angelic figure in white, Iris, is the lone survivor, and she’s framed next to religious imagery. On the left side of the frame: the profane. On the right side of the frame: the sacred. In the middle: Travis — a fusion of both Caravaggian concepts.
To reinforce the idea that Travis dies in Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s movie camera slowly leaves the room while the police assess the scene, frozen in shock. The camera ultimately settles in the street to show that a giant mess still exists. The implication: Travis didn’t clean up anything but instead contributed to the filth. Still, Taxi Driver leaves it up to the audience to interpret the rest of the film. Was Travis just in his actions? Or did Travis’ delusional mind and moral righteousness get the best of him? Essentially, Scorsese provides the audience with a Caravaggian ending. Travis can be viewed as a sacred figure who lives on. Or he can be viewed as a profane murderer who’s stuck in purgatory, or hell.
Taxi Driver’s epilogue makes it seems like this Robert De Niro breakout character survived and became a New York City hero for saving young Iris, whose father reads a thank-you letter through voiceover narration. But if you listen closely, the man’s writing and speech pattern mirrors Travis’ diary entries and narration. And so Travis is either alive and creating another false narrative to justify his actions, or he’s imagining an idealized version of events in his moment of death. Based on Scorsese’s visual evidence, the letter from Iris’ father is a figment of Travis’ imagination.
When Betsy shows up in Travis’ vehicle during Taxi Driver, the two seemingly reunite and re-ignite a possible romance. However, this appears to be another idealized version of events that Travis imagines. The streets are suspiciously clean at the end of this violence and crime spree-infused movie, and Betsy’s hair blows in the wind like an angel. And it doesn’t seem coincidental that she wears white. This is Scorsese’s sacred ending for Taxi Driver: an angel with the face of Betsy welcomes Travis to heaven.
Scorsese ultimately leaves viewers with a profane ending in Taxi Driver. After Travis and Betsy go their separate ways, a brief moment of chaotic sound design brings the audience back to reality, whatever that may be. And the look in Travis’ eye suggests that he’s certainly not in a peaceful place. The Taxi Driver continues to ride on, but he’s in a hellish realm and repeating the same loop. To quote Betsy from earlier in the film, Robert De Niro’s character is “part truth, part fiction… a walking contradiction.”
Taxi Driver does a phenomenal job of taking audiences along for an unnerving descent into palpable madness, but whether or not the 1976 classic’s ending still holds up is a rather polarizing question. It’s easy to see why this concept is so widely debated nearly 50 years later, but Scorsese’s ending is still perfect for the movie. Travis Bickle is at the wheel for Taxi Driver’s entire disturbing ride; it’s clear that he’s demented and dangerous, but he controls a great deal of how the narrative is presented (e.g. his diary entries read via voiceover and the intimate, voyeuristic look at his day-to-day existence). After becoming well-acquainted with Travis’ psyche, it’s only natural that viewers experience Taxi Driver’s ending through his detached and delusional lens as well. In addition, the Martin Scorsese movie’s death-littered ending portion renders both a purposefully ethereal atmosphere and outlandish, unlikely events that don’t quite mesh with what has come before in the film. These elements give even more of a look into Travis’ deranged psyche and flawed self-perception after (or during) his death, while clearly signaling to viewers that this wrap-up is only an extension of Travis’ unreliable narration.
Martin Scorsese certainly has a knack for awesomely ambiguous endings. The most notable example of this is how 2010’s Shutter Island wraps up. Though different from Taxi Driver in many ways, this ultra-dark psychological thriller imparts the audience with a similar kind of doom-infused unease. Shutter Island ends with Teddy Daniels/Andrew Laeddis (Leonardo DiCaprio) seemingly acknowledging awareness about who he really is and how he’s about to be lobotomized (though those ordering the procedure think he’s still delusional). But, in yet another twist, the Martin Scorsese movie is bookended with Leonardo DiCaprio’s eerie delivery of this philosophical question: “This place makes me wonder, which would be worse… to live as a monster or to die as a good man?” The question itself is important and thought-provoking, and it parallels Shutter Island’s essence. Still, a great deal is left in the air. Does Teddy/Andrew remember who he really is? There’s a great deal of ambiguous, implicit commentary (which is up for interpretation) about the stories humans tell themselves to survive.
There are two other Martin Scorsese movies with endings that, though not completely ambiguous, are certainly left to a certain level of viewer interpretation. The auteur’s 2006 Irish mafia and law enforcement-centered drama The Departed draws to a close right after Collin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is shot to death in his apartment. His character’s death is karmically rewarding, as he’s one of multiple “rats” throughout the high-ranking Martin Scorsese movie who secretly works for another side. The camera then pans to an actual rat, with a government building in the background. Of course, this is a clear parallel to Sullivan being a rat and the two-faced nature of some of the movie’s treacherous characters. However, there’s more to it than that. The building also symbolizes how corruption and criminality run rampant within any government – let alone a city like Boston – which has an infamous reputation for both. Still, there’s an ambiguity to exactly what Scorsese is saying about “rats” and corruption; audience members must decide for themselves.
There’s also another Robert De Niro-starring Martin Scorsese movie with a semi-ambiguous ending: The King Of Comedy. This 1982 black comedy-infused drama ends the story of stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) after his fall from grace. He’s supposedly gone to prison for his deranged kidnapping scheme, having left on parole after only serving a few years. He has a new autobiography out and has been surprisingly successful in showbusiness since his legal troubles. The King Of Comedy ends with an announcer repeating different, adoring versions of “Ladies and gentlemen, Rupert Pupkin!” Like Taxi Driver, this Scorsese ending leaves one wondering how any of this is possible. As with Travis Bickle’s version of events, it’s seemingly impossible that what’s being depicted is the objective reality. Also like in Taxi Driver, The King Of Comedy ends with the kind of reality its deeply flawed protagonist wants to believe is real, while there’s no possible way that the events are anything but a sort of unreliable narration from an unhinged main character. Still, the movie’s delusional and utterly haunting ending, as well as how it specifically ties in with artistic commentary on showbusiness, is brilliantly subjective.