Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro) is a lonely, frustrated, and disoriented young Vietnam veteran from the Midwest who is working as a night cabbie in Manhattan. He despises "Sin City" with all its pimps and prostitutes, pushers and perverts. As a taxi driver, he stays somewhat sealed off from this ugly external world. He exists in the private space of his room and his cab — two isolated realms serving as a womb. Travis is the anonymous man. The other people to whom he should normally relate in his development as a person have become constant irritants and challenges to his self-will. By the middle of the film, his womb has been transformed into a fantasy chamber giving him the only opportunity he has to assert himself as the center of the universe.

Director Martin Scorsese who did such a masterful job using New York City as a backdrop for Mean Streets again succeeds in capturing the frantic and frightening side of the metropolis. Whether the scene is set in the slummy East Village, as the Bellmore Cafeteria (a hangout for hack drivers) or at Columbus Circle, the picture is a continuing presentation of an oppressive urban soulscape — the ever unfriendly environment.

Travis prowls the city in his cab. The wretched tenements, the glare of traffic lights at night, the eerie vapors emanating from the streets — all combine to create a feeling for Manhattan as an evil octopus. We begin to feel claustrophobic — closed in and pressed upon. The atmosphere of the film is feverish with constant intimations of impending violence.

Travis is hungry for love and recognition. He aggressively inserts himself into the life of Susan (Cybill Shepherd), an attractive, bright, and socially conscious woman who is working at the campaign headquarters of Presidential candidate Charles Palatine (Leonard Harris). Their encounters at her office, over coffee in a restaurant, and on one date are both bizarre and extremely revealing. The relationship is doomed from the start. Seeing her as "an angel in this filthy mess," Travis puts Susan on a pedestal. When he discovers that she is something less than an angel, his despair deepens.

If he can no longer be an adoring prince, Travis wants to be a savior. He showers his affections upon Iris (Jodie Foster), a twelve-year-old hooker who is the property of Sport (Harvey Keitel), a self-obsessed pimp. The taxi driver offers Iris some money in hopes that she will leave the city and the degradation of her life as a prostitute. She laughingly tells him: "I don't know who's weirder — you or me." But we know.

One of the movie's more poignant scenes takes place one night at the Bellmore Cafeteria. Travis tries to convey to Wizard (Peter Boyle), a veteran cabbie, what he feels about the meaninglessness of his life. He struggles to into words his depression, anger, and bewilderment. Although Wizard is somewhat tuned into that same feeling, he can offer nothing except the suggestion of cheap thrills. This vignette works on a gut level; it puts before us in a very realistic way the many situations in our lives when we have played either the role of victim or adviser. And when the scene is over, we feel the sense of loss in both the failure to communicate and the botched opportunity to help a despondent friend.

Robert de Niro's performance as the nervous and psychopathic Travis is a tightrope act of sustained intensity. It is to the actor's credit that he can involve us so deeply with this person's disequilibrium and rage. De Niro doesn't allow us to distance or disassociate ourselves from this character. He places us in the cab and by the sheer insistence of his performance takes us along for the whole ride This is acting worthy of an Academy Award.

Although Taxi Driver contains an assassination attempt on a Presidential candidate, the movie is not about that subject. By taking us inside a killer's mind, it reveals a very important truth: most murders are little murders. What shocks is the ease with which basic human aches can add up to murder — the working out of private grudges thought political symbols (Travis tries to get back at Susan through Palatine) and the sudden anger which finds release against whoever is at hand (the stomach-turning carnage of the film's finale). Taxi Driver is not for those who are unable to handle cinematic violence.