Not many directors are really as capable as Scorsese when it comes to being able to drag you into a fictional world, to build a whole atmosphere around you. You feel like you’re sitting shotgun in Travis Bickle’s cab right beside him. It almost feels like a documentary for its sheer realism. It is as close as you can get to “found footage” without some gimmick like having one of the characters hold the camera.
The film is part of an unofficial trilogy of sorts with The Searchers and Paris, Texas. Both Scorsese’s film and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas are loose remakes of John Ford’s The Searchers, and both of the main characters of the latter films, both named Travis, are loosely cast as John Wayne types. The whole trilogy works as an example of just how many different ways there are to tell a single story.
The Searchers is an adventure film rotating around the themes of racism and lonesomeness. Paris, Texas takes a similar story and tells it in a sweet way, focusing on issues of lonesomeness and family, and Scorsese focuses on lonesomeness and the use of violence as a means of personal validation. In all three, the heroes serve as escorts, attempting to rescue people and put them where they need to be, reuniting them with their families, but in all three, the heroes must leave once more in the end, forever alone.
Each film is a statement on loneliness, and this is why these characters are so easy to sympathize with. All three characters commit, or have committed, deeds that normal human beings would not take pride in, but you find yourself wanting them all to come out okay, even Travis Bickle, who is half hero and half sociopath, because we all know what it feels like to be so alone.
Everyone has been at a point in their lives where they feel trapped in their own little bubble. Loneliness doesn’t just mean being alone, being single or living out in the middle of nowhere. Loneliness can happen even when you’re surrounded by people all day. We know where Travis has been.
Few people are willing to talk about the darkest aspect of the film, because it involves looking at your own darker instincts: We root for Travis Bickle in the end. We shouldn’t, but we do, because we wish he could be the hero, we wish the film was a western so that his simplistic moral compass would be correct. The tragedy is that it’s not a western.
The film serves as a great companion piece to The Searchers and Paris, Texas, but it also goes hand in hand with Stallone’s First Blood, which was similarly about an outsider, a Vietnam veteran, who turns to violence as a way to find personal validation.