An Analysis of Dis(ability) and its Relationship to Society in Taxi Driver, Joker, and Nightcrawler

Paper by Sophia Gawrit.

From the early era of film, film “focused on disability, primarily because disabilities presented or allowed for unique or startling images” (Benshoff & Griffin). People with disabilities were seen as objects rather than subjects within society. Since film has progressed, the industry has shifted to focusing more on intellectual disabilities. In the 1960’s, the social model of disability was coined which focuses on “the approach to disability issues that examines the relationship between society and individuals with disabilities” (Benshoff & Griffin). The way in which people with intellectual disabilities interact with society plays an overall effect on their actions and an overall reaction from society.

In 1976, Martin Scorsese released the film Taxi Driver. The film, starring Robert De Niro centers around the life of Travis Bickle, a Vietnam Veteran trying to navigate his life through a corrupt system. It is evident that Travis suffers from a few key issues. First off, he becomes a taxi driver in New York City to help with his sleeping insomnia most likely due to his PTSD from the war. Through the eyes of Travis as a taxi driver, the viewers are able to see the unequal society that Travis lives in.

During the late 1970’s, New York City suffered from the fiscal crisis. New York City was in severe economic and political troubles. All of the middle-class was moving out of the city into the suburbs in search of a job, leaving the city divided with a substantial number of low-class families and extremely rich families (PBS). “Despite such calls for New Yorkers to “share the pain” it is the city’s poor and working-class who are expected to pay the price for putting the city back on good fiscal footing with cuts in social services and strict limits on wage increases for municipal workers” (Spear 90). With little to no upper-class families doing working-class jobs, the city is reliant on all of the lower class to do the work. Because of this, the lower-class is able to understand how disorderly and chaotic society is. In the Western society, “power habitually passes itself off as embodied in the normal as opposed to the superior” (Dyer 824). With the rich holing power, the lower class has no option but to do the work and fend for themselves.

In Taxi Driver, it is evident to see the detrimental effects that the middle-class poses on the city. The whole storyline of the film is centered around Charles Palatine, a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in the 1976 election. Although the audience becomes enamored with Travis and his crush on Betsy, a woman working under Palatine’s campaign, it is difficult to look past the underlying issue of New York City. In the scene where Travis is driving Palatine and one of Palatine’s friends/ coworkers, it becomes easier to understand how unaware Palatine is to the issues surrounding the city; as Travis would say, it is like an “open sewer, full of filth and scum.” Moreover, the expression on Palatine’s face as Travis is talking down about the city makes you believe that what Travis is saying is a little shocking.

In the film Joker, by Todd Phillips released in 2019, but taking place in 1981, a similar issue is seen. Arthur Fleck, is a low-class man suffering from the Pseudo Bulbar Affect, a condition that uncontrollably keeps him laughing. Arthur’s “mind is medicated, programmed through the distorted, mediated realities presented by modern mass media. He is pathologically narcissistic, bending and interpreting events to put himself at their center” (DeVega). He is left in a corrupt system where his needs are unable to be met due to the social system collapsing from funding cuts. During his last meeting with his social worker, they discuss the craziness of society. The social worker says, “It’s certainly tense. People are upset, they’re struggling. Looking for work. The garbage strike seems like it’s been going on forever. These are tough times.” Although Arthur doesn’t seem upset to the fact that he is no longer able to have a social worker, a lot is said through this scene. There are two things worth flagging. The first, is the obvious. This scene demonstrated how the fiscal crisis is affecting society. The social worker, of middle class, is forced out of her job due to lack of funding and Arthur, of low-class, is left with no guidance. He a struggling man thrown into a chaotic society and although he wasn’t jumping up in anger that he would no longer have a social worker, the fact that the funding is cut to help those in need to make the rich richer is the key issue. Secondly, the discussion between Arthur and his social worker in regard to Arthur’s journaling is striking. She asks Arthur if he has been journaling and describes his journaling as more of a joke book where he writes down his jokes. He then proceeds to laugh, and the social worker asks him what he is laughing at. Arthur says that he is laughing at a joke but wouldn’t say the joke because the social worker wouldn’t understand it. A similar situation happens in Taxi Driver. Travis, suffering from schizotypal personality, uses his journal as an escape to not write down his thoughts, but to rather write a fantasized letter about Iris, a prostitute that Travis saves to her father. Both Arthur and Travis are supposed to be focusing on their personal thoughts but would rather not take it seriously.

Along with Travis’ PTSD, he seems to suffer from a schizotypal personality (STPD). That is, “a disease of the brain that involves mostly negative and cognitive symptoms such as, discomfort with or incapacity for social relations, apparent indifference to others, and emotional inexpressiveness. STPD also implies eccentric to bizarre beliefs, habits and appearance” (Goldberg). Travis lacks total interpersonal communication with the outside world. He is able to communicate with people, but in an odd, almost forceful way. In Travis’ initial encounter with Betsy, the girl he has a crush on, he walks in all confident asking to volunteer for the Palatine campaign. He demands to the man talking to Betsy that he wants to volunteer for her and not him. He pushes the guy to the side and immediately tells Betsy how beautiful she is and how well she carries herself within a minute of meeting her. He then proceeds to ask her out, she hesitates, and then he continues to ask her. He says that he will always be there for her. The interaction between Travis, a lonely taxi driver and Betsy, a woman working for a campaign is awkwardly intriguing.

Moreover, it is not just the awkward interaction between Travis and Betsy that make to believe that Travis suffers from STPD, but it is also his unnerved and vague conversations with people in society and his odd habits that call for some concern. His opening conversation with the taxi hiree gave the audience some insight into his past and reasoning for the job, yet so much was left unanswered. The viewer is aware that he is a veteran but is left wondering what left him being a taxi driver other than his insomnia. From the viewers end, it looks as if Travis is poor. His home is tiny and quaint; it is like a shoebox. His clothes are hanging on a clothesline directly next to his kitchen sink. A Vietnamese flag hangs in the background and most of the time Travis is seen in his home doing push-ups or journaling. His journaling is really the only part of the film where the audience is able to hear Travis’ unrealistic thoughts. Most of the time he is journaling lies.

Both Travis and Arthur suffer from feelings of loneliness and feeling like an outsider. In the article, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer say that “culture today is infecting everything with sameness. Film, radio, and magazines form a system. Each branch of culture is unanimous withing itself and all are unanimous together” (Adorno & Horkheimer 1016). Being as looked different upon is almost as seen as having a disability. Although it is evident that both Travis, Arthur, and Lou (Nightcrawler) suffer from their own mental and psychological issues that affect their day-to-day life, there are aspects of their differences that are normal, yet judged by society for not conforming to societal standards. In Joker, Arthur lives in a society where “in reality, neoliberalism is “socialism” and “welfare” for the richest individuals and largest corporations — and “survival of the fittest” for everyone else” (DeVega). Although Arthur has his own psychological issues, he is not conforming to societal expectations due to not qualifying for them. In the corrupt society that Arthur, Travis, and Lou live in, they are forced to be outsiders because there is no opportunity for them to become something more than they are unless they break the barrier and disregard other people’s opinions.

In Joker and Taxi Driver, there was one specific scene that stood out. In Joker, it was the scene where Arthur is dancing in front of the television talking to himself. He is dancing and he pulls a gun out and accidently shoots it. In Taxi Driver, which was released before Joker, there is a similar occurrence. Travis starts talking to himself saying, “you talkin’ to me” and then takes his gun out and pretends to shoot. Both of these characters create different scenarios that they are planning on playing out. The way in which they play out these different scenarios is almost discomforting to watch because as the viewer you realize that these actions may play out.
While Joker and Taxi Driver are similar in so many ways in terms of the characters class and ability and the setting and time period in which they take place, it is just as easy to compare it to Nightcrawler, a film by Dan Gilroy, released in 2014. Although this film takes place in present day Los Angeles while Joker and Taxi Driver, take place in the 1970’s- 80’s, there are so many similarities to do with the characters abilities and their class. In Nightcrawler, the main character, Louis (Lou) Bloom, is a thief trying to get a job. What is so intriguing about Lou is his uncomfortable, almost frightening, personality. From the viewers perspective, it becomes difficult to understand Lou’s intent in the film. From the beginning of the film, it is evident that there is something that is off about Lou. Other than being anti-social, he comes across as having a psychopathy behavior where he is emotionless as to what is going on. A lot of the scenes where Lou is going and grabbing footage, people are dead or look sickly from the accident. Lou is so focused on getting footage to make money, that he almost doesn’t realize the fact that these are real people. A scene that really stood out was one of the last crime scenes that the viewers see Lou at. He arrives at a house where a home invasion had occurred, killing a whole family. The way in which Lou goes into the house acting as if the people are objects, is really difficult yet interesting to observe. There is almost little to no emotion to the incident. In Joker and Taxi Driver, there are similar instances where the death of someone is almost emotionless.

In Joker, there are a few scenes where Arthur is seen killing someone. The first scene where Arthur kills someone is when he kills two men on the train. After killing these two men, society goes crazy looking for the person who did it, but Arthur almost feels empowered by the whole situation. He is used to spending his days lonely with no friends and by being judged by people in society due to his condition. After he kills the two men on the train, he feels as if he has gained some sort of attention that he has been searching for his whole life. In another instance, Arthur kills one of his old co-workers from when he was a clown. He kills him because he felt as if he wasn’t respected by his co-worker. Lastly, when Arthur kills Murray Franklin, his idol, towards the end of the film, Arthur feels as if he has won. Although Murray was his idol and he dreamed of going on the Murray show he realized that once he got the opportunity, Murray wasn’t respecting of him, and he didn’t feel as if he got the reaction that he was intending from Murray. Through these different situations, it is evident that Arthur felt as if he wasn’t welcomed in society and had no other option than to kill. By killing people, he felt as if he finally had the attention that he was in search of and the power that he felt he lacked due to being judged and of low class.

Taxi Driver also related to Nightcrawler and Joker, in relationship to killing without feeling emotion or guilt. In Taxi Driver, Travis buys guns with the intent of killing Palatine. He wants to kill Palatine because he feels as if Palatine would do nothing for the country. When Travis is going into a convenient store, a man comes in trying to rob the cashier. Without hesitation, Travis pulls out his gun and shoots the man, killing him. Rather than fear that he just killed the man, Travis just becomes concerned that he doesn’t have his gun license. Lastly, when Travis intends on killing Palatine, but his mission fails, he ends up saving Iris, a very young prostitute. He ends up saving those who he feels are on the same level as him in regard to class and ends his mission with those he believes should not be a part of society.

The thing that stood out between these three films (Joker, Taxi Driver, and Nightcrawler) is the character willingness and lack of emotional response. Each one of these characters are male outsider part of the lower class. None of them really have an understanding of their purpose but have a goal that they would go the lengths to achieve. Each character is unique in the way in which they dress and act within society. They all dress in a way that makes a statement. In Joker, Arthur dresses in this mask persona that almost looks like a clown. He succeeds in the way that society starts to dress as him and have riots. In Taxi Driver, towards the end of the film, Travis changes his hairstyle to a mohawk and wears an army jacket. In Nightcrawler, Lou is always seen wearing pants with a white shirt and a blazer. Each one of these characters has a specificstyle that correlates with their personality. In Arthur’s case, his life is a mess, and he has trouble understanding where he fits in, so wearing his disguised outfit that looks like a clown represents who he feels he is comfortable being. Travis mentions at the beginning of Taxi Driver that he served in the Vietnam War. By him wearing an army jacket, he is representing who he feels he is and that is a Veteran. He represents someone who feels as if they are thrown into an unequal society and are labeled as being nothing other than a veteran. In Lou’s case, he is a simple guy. His apartment in Nightcrawler is spotless. It seems as if he wants everything to be organized. By him wearing an outfit that is put together, it shows that he is organized.

In conclusion, although each one of these characters are different in their own ways and have different motives, they somehow feel so similar. They all suffer from some sort of intellectual disability that gets in the way of their overall interaction with society. Each one of them have difficulties expressing their emotions. They are all driven to conquer a specific goal and won’t let anything get in the way of that. Moreover, each one of these characters represent what it is to be of low-class and rejected from society. Although each character has some extent of a disability but also much ability, they are all human and much of their actions are due to the unequal normality and judgment of society. If these three films prove anything, they prove that society needs improvement on acceptance and resources that meet people’s needs.

Works Cited
Adorno, Theodor. Frankfurt School: The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,
Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film:Representing Race, Class, Gender, and
Sexuality at the Movies.
“Blackout.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,
DeVega, Chauncey. “‘Joker’: A Harsh Indictment of Neoliberalism and Gangster Capitalism.” Salon,, 11 Oct. 2019, todd-phillips-indictment-neoliberalism-violence/.
Francine R. Goldberg, PhD. Schizotypal Personality Disorder : A Case Study of the Movie Classic Taxi Driver., 2014. INSERT-MISSING-DATABASE-NAME, Accessed 16 Nov. 2021.
Spear, Michael. “Lessons to Be Learned: The New York City Municipal Unions, the 1970s Fiscal
Crisis, and New York City at a Crossroads after September 11.” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 62, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 89–95,

About this entry