Directed by Martin Scorsese
When people refer to the greatness of Martin Scorsese, they most often refer to Taxi Driver. It’s a highly-influential film (think of 2011’s Drive or 2014’s Nightcrawler, for example) and one of many collaborations between Scorsese and De Niro as well as between Scorsese and New York City. Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999) would also take place in a similar version of New York after the sun went down. Scorsese has visions of the dark side of the city, when the creatures come crawling, the steam leaks from the hell beneath and the characters at the center of the story are as crazy as the people they rub shoulders with.
Thinking about Scorsese’s other films, though, I don’t think any of them have a character quite as unhinged as Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). Sure, Raging Bull‘s Jake LaMotta wasn’t such a great guy, and a bunch of characters from Goodfellas and Casino aren’t so great as well. You have the emotionally corrupted characters like in The King of Comedy or the characters whose lives and sanity seem to have an expiring timer, like in Bringing Out the Dead and The Aviator, but there is no single character as disconnected from reality and as ambitious or even as lonely as Travis Bickle.
He’s a famous character with a famous line reading, “You talkin’ to me?” He’s an antihero, but even that gives him too much credit. Bickle is the villain, but he’s also our protagonist. He’s an isolated man who fuels off his own isolation, not unlike a kind of narcissist. He’s a taxi driver who works at night and prowls through the hot, garbage-filled streets of New York in the summer like a lion in the jungle. Except that Travis isn’t the king here. If anything, he’s no different than the people he leers at, and based on what we see, he’s much further down the rabbit hole than they will ever be.
Bickle is some kind of idealist, but his world view is warped. He’s like the villains in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night trilogy who would sooner burn the world than try to rehabilitate it. He recognizes a flaw in our society, but he reckons that there’s no coming back. And he’s right, in a way, because he’s part of that problem, and he’s certainly not coming back to reality anytime soon.
Bickle is a bad guy with no redemption. There may be the hint of a redemption, as he massacres the men (read: pimps) tormenting a child prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster who was twelve years old at the time), but this has more to do with his obsession with the blonde-haired Iris, much in the way he was obsessed with another blonde-haired woman, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) who worked for the presidential campaign of Senator Charles Palantine, a man he will attempt to assassinate.
Bickle’s motivations are fickle, but his ambition is severe. He’s a man who knows no limits, in the wrong kind of way, and his social life is a series of rejections. Senator Palantine happens to take a ride in his cab, and a quick conversation turns sinister as Palantine recognizes Bickle’s insanity. A second date with Betsy goes awry when Bickle doesn’t understand why going to a pornographic movie theater would be a turn off. In another interaction he tries to convince Iris to stop prostituting herself, but she doesn’t listen to him. There’s even a strange interaction with one of Palantine’s secret service agents, a man who quickly identifies the danger Bickle poses and always keeps him at arm’s distance.
Bickle has a series of conversations that always feel one-sided. His attempts to connect with people go nowhere, and so that famous scene, with him talking to himself in the mirror, might as well be him throughout the entire film. He’s the type of guy talking to himself in the street, ranting and prophesying.
Despite his insistence to Palantine that he’s going to vote for him, Bickle comes up with a plan to kill him. He shows up to a rally, his head shaved into a mohawk as a sort of war preparation, but when the secret service agent from before spots him, Bickle makes a run for it.
He then approaches Iris’ brothel where he shoots and kills Sport (Harvey Keitel), a pimp. Then he marches his way through the brothel, up the stairs in a bloody, disturbing scene. The gun violence is as shocking as it should be, though Scorsese has to get creative so you never quite feel desensitized to this massacre. Bickle shoots off the hand of another pimp, is himself shot in the neck, then mows down another man while suffering a shoulder wound from point blank range.
I’ve seen characters beaten, bruised and pierced by bullets in movies before, but it’s genuinely difficult to watch as Bickle is ripped apart, blood flowing freely from his wounds. He sits down next to Iris and attempts to kill himself, but the gun chamber is empty. Then the cops show up, Bickle smiles like a madman and mimes shooting himself in the head, and in another shot the camera glides over the carnage from a bird’s eye view.
The next thing we know, Travis is miraculously healed, his fatal neck wound now just a dull scar. Iris’ father writes him a letter thanking him for bringing their daughter home. He’s lauded as a hero, and while out working one night, Betsy gets into his car and alludes to the story of him as a hero. It’s no big deal, he effectively says, and he lets her off.
Now, this final scene is of course a fantasy. It’s inexplicable that Travis could’ve survived such injuries, and this fantasy just offers his character the ending he would’ve wanted. What I find fascinating is that I think this ending underscores the fact that Travis is a madman.
Had the movie just ended with his death, some people might read into it that he had done a good thing and given a young girl her freedom. But he just came from a rally where he had planned on assassinating a politician. There’s been absolutely no moment to suggest that Travis has changed in any way. So I think this dream sequence at the end of the film might feel like it’s a bit too much if you think Bickle died a hero, which he didn’t. The ending is so strangely sentimental that it only works as another mark against Bickle’s character. It’s a reminder that the way he sees himself in no way vibes with the way he really is, the way we hopefully see him.
Sure, the people Bickle mows down are not the most savory folks, but his decision to kill them is just an extension of what he made clear early in the film, that he is having increasingly violent thoughts. It’s not about any change of heart, any sudden realization, it’s just the misplaced aggression of a man that could no longer hold it in. If it wasn’t Sport, it would be another pimp or another person of color. Travis Bickle is psychotic, but we’re allowed in and given the possibility to maybe understand his psychopathy. But we don’t, because it doesn’t make sense. We’re allowed into Travis’ head, hearing his thoughts, and still his actions don’t make sense. A storytelling device usually meant to heighten our empathy does exactly the opposite, alienating us from this angry character.
The Travis Bickle character is now an archetype, though it may not have been such a clear-cut character at the time of the film. You can see a little bit of Travis Bickle in Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White and more. It’s become a cliche by now, though even other films and television shows will try to give the protagonist some redeeming qualities. Scorsese does none of that here. Maybe, just maybe we might feel something for Travis had we understood that he truly wanted to free Iris and send her home. But in that climactic sequence, all he does is kill a bunch of men and then completely ignore her as she cries in the corner. In the end, in his fantasy, we see just how self-serving he meant for this to be. It was never about Iris, just as it was never about Betsy.
I can’t think of another film in which we follow a protagonist with such hatred in his heart. Bickle loves nothing, not even himself. Any affection he has for another quickly rots and turns into something more dangerous. When Betsy stops answering his calls, he angrily barges into her office before the police run him off. The last time he sees Iris, following the massacre, the moment similarly ends with the police arriving at the scene. The last thing Bickle does in both instances is respond to the police, to the systematic authority. Betsy and Iris are all but forgotten, just pawns in his game of… I don’t know, some kind of self-fulfillment?
We’re led to believe, if the ending is literal, that Bickle finally found some kind of peace. He’s back at work, hanging out with the same cabbies at the same coffee shops, just going about his job like it’s all he needs in life. If this were the case, then it means all his character wanted was some peace of mind, and that he got it. But the end is just what he wanted to happen, to quiet his mind. Maybe Bickle was as trapped by himself as others felt around him. He wishes to have lived or died like a hero, caring what others thought of him, but if he could make up a story for himself that even he believes, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
Up Next: Columbus (2017), Sanshiro Sugata (1943), Murder on the Orient Express (2017)