It’s hard to look at Taxi Driver with a fresh eye when its main character has come to encapsulate everything stereotypical about the disaffected, angry loners who cause spectacular and public damage to the world. One of those loners adopted Bickle’s plan for earning what he saw as respect in order to impress one of the stars of this very film. Was Taxi Driver more disturbing, or less disturbing, before its unpleasant truths shifted into the real world?
Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro: Ronin, Jackie Brown) “can’t sleep nights,” so he drives a cab, sometimes working 14-hour days, seven days a week. He’ll go into New York City neighborhoods that other drivers avoid — NYC was a real cesspit in the mid 70s — yet he’s upset by the “sick, venial” people who haunt the streets at night: hookers, junkies, crazies. He drives his cab through the shower of an open fire hydrant one night, after dropping off a hooker and her john, as if to wash them away; he mentions with disgust, in the film’s narration, how he has to wash blood and other bodily fluids from the back seat at the end of every night. He wishes the rain would wash away the human detritus of a city he likens to “an open sewer.”
Travis seems to hover apart, disconnected from the rest of the world, and he knows it, but his attempts to make a connection always fail. He tries to turn an obsession with a pretty election worker, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), into a relationship but fails miserably — she ends up seeing him as the kind of “human garbage” he rails against himself. So he throws his energy into trying to reform Iris (Jodie Foster: Contact, The Silence of the Lambs), a 12-year-old prostitute — though younger and more impressionable, Iris looks strikingly like Betsy. Unable to forge a bond with an adult woman, he latches on to a child.
A sense of foreboding builds oppressively as Taxi Driver runs its course — bad stuff is coming. Travis recognizes his anger: at women, fueled by a fare (director Martin Scorsese: Raging Bull, in a cameo) sparked toward murder by sexual jealousy, and at men — such as Iris’s pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel: U-571, Fairy Tale: A True Story), for obvious reasons, and Betsy’s coworker, Tom (Albert Brooks: The Muse, Out of Sight), just for being an ordinary guy. But his one last attempt at human interaction goes awry, too — he tells fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle: Species II, The Santa Clause) that he has bad ideas in his head, but Wizard misinterprets, or simply doesn’t see, Travis’s uneasy grins and inability to look Wizard in the eye. Travis reaches for help, knows he needs it, and is ignored by the world once more.
The thing I’m never sure about is whether Travis is actually psychotic, and Paul Schrader’s script, Scorsese’s direction, and DeNiro’s performance don’t give us any easy answers. Travis certainly has a warped view of the city — the impressionistic view out the windshield of his cab and the closeups of his shifty eyes during the opening credits say as much. Travis writes to his parents that he’s working on a secret government project, but does Travis even half believe this, or is it a considered ploy not to worry his parents… and yet, who in his right mind would think his parents would be fooled by it? And when Travis complains to himself of headaches that get worse and worse, and that he thinks he has “stomach cancer,” are we to take these ailments as symptoms of something actually wrong with his head, or are they manifestations of his obvious stress?
DeNiro plays Travis calmly sane, even as he transforms himself into what’s become an iconic picture of insane rage: the mohawk, the fatigue jacket, the arsenal of guns at the ready. And yet the single violent act the film advances to — unlike so many movies today, which mistake constant violence for intensity — and its ironic outcome seems to cure Travis of what ailed him… if anything ailed him at all. Is Travis mad as hell and simply not going to take it anymore, or is he simply mad?
AFI 100: #52
unforgettable movie moment:
Travis, armed to the teeth, rehearses his encounters with the “human garbage” he’s out to clean up. Playing off himself in the mirror of his dingy apartment, he rants: “You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here.”
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