I - A young man with a sleep disorder
Robert de Niro is a Vietnam veteran with a sleep disorder called Travis Bickle. After he has entered an office to apply for a job the following conversation ensues:
"Some. Here and there."
"How's your driving record. Clean?"
"It's clean, real clean. Like my conscience."
Travis Bickle's conscience is clean. The problem is that in his opinion Travis Bickle is virtually the only one in town with a clear conscience. Look at his description of nightlife:
"All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."
Today many people think Taxi Driver is one of the very best movies of the seventies - probably even the best - but when it was first released, it got mixed reviews. To some it was a masterpiece, others thought it was a cold-blooded, repulsive descent into the underbelly of modern city life. It was awarded the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but was overlooked by The Academy. The Oscar for best motion picture went that year to (believe it or not) ... Rocky.
Taxi Driver will make many of us think of the shooting incidents in the US that fill the headlines on regular intervals. Often the perpetrator turns out to be one of those quiet young men who think the world is sick and needs to be cleaned up. Like some have said: the movie seems a frighteningly plausible case history of such a person (1).
Travis identifies himself with two persons, Betsy, a young woman he's attracted to, and Iris, a twelve year old hooker he feels responsible for. Betsy is a volunteer for the campaign of Charles Palantine, a senator running for president. Travis thinks Betsy and he are soul mates, so Palantine must be a good man, that is: a man who wants to clean up the dirt. When he's rejected by Betsy (after taking her to a sex movie on a first date!) and subsequently finds out what Palantine really stands for, he decides to kill him. In the meantime he has bought four pistols and a jungle knife, and practiced his skill every night in front of the mirror:
"You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking to ... you talking to me? Well I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're talking to?"
He has decided to give a large part of the money he has earned to Iris, so she can return to her parents. But when he's about to draw his gun, he is recognized by a secret service agent he has once spoken to, and flees from the spot in panic ...
... and freaks out ... In one desperate and outrageous attempt, Travis tries to clean up the brothel where Iris is abused night after night. Three persons are killed in the delirious gunfight and Travis himself is badly wounded. Iris ends up sitting beside the heavily bleeding man, crying, frightened, traumatized ...
II - Who is Travis Bickle?
A lot of confusion was created by the film's coda, in which a recovered Travis Bickle seems to have become a popular hero. We see him reading a letter, sent to him by Iris' parents, who thank him for all the things he has done for her. She's doing well, and she's attending school again, so he's told. The scene seems to deny the entire movie. All of a sudden we're supposed to see Travis as a (successful) vigilante. Wasn't he a psycho after all? Or is Scorsese mocking the media, who create popular heroes whenever they (or the world) needs one?
Some have interpreted the scene as a hallucination of a dying Travis Bickle. Both Scorsese and Schrader have nourished the idea with statements about the nature of the things happening in Taxi Driver. They reflect a state of restricted awareness, that makes a person wonder whether he's awake or sleeping (2). Schrader's major source of inspiration, was Dostoïevski's Notes from the Underground, about an embittered, nameless man, who has withdrawn from society and analyses modern life - and rejects it because it is impious and devoid of reason. Dostoïevski's novella is - like Taxi Driver - a first person narrative, and the same term - restricted awareness - has often been used for the state of mind of the underground man; furthermore we don't know if the narrator of a first person narrative is reliable: his account of the events might not be in accordance with the facts.
There are also similarities to the endings of some of John Ford's westerns, such as Fort Apache and The Man who shot Liberty Valance, in which a man is declared a hero although he doesn't really deserve this honor. Both Scorsese and Schrader have declared that a third Ford movie, The Searchers, was a conscious influence. According to Robin Wood, Travis Bickle is on one hand a western hero transplanted in a modern urban wilderness - he derives in particular from Ethan Edwards (John Wayne's character in The Searchers) - but also related to the psychopaths and monsters of contemporary horror movies. In other words: he represents two opposite archetypes. This clash of artistic personalities, would also reflect the national ideological dilemma of the American nation in the mid-seventies (3).
III - Not the last word
The last word has not been spoken about this movie and its protagonist, the insomniac Travis Bickle. Like some of Franz Kafka's novels, it seems open to radically different, often conflicting interpretations. We are afraid of Travis Bickle and won't accept him as a popular hero, yet we sympathize with him when he unleashes his demons. These contradictions don't hurt the movie's poignancy, but make it, quite on the contrary, only more powerful.
The build-up to the devastating finale is unequaled in the history of cinema. From the very first moment, Taxi Driver feels like a descent into a maelstrom. The bloody shootout in the brothel, is as shocking today as it was nearly forty years ago. The almost laconic, yet haunting score by Bernard Hermann (unfortunately his last) is a perfect counterpoint to the claustrophobic action. Several scenes, like De Niro in front of the mirror, are part of the collective memory of mankind. Film making at its zenith.
1976 - Dir: Martin Scorsese - Cast: Robert de Niro (Travis Bickle), Jodie Foster (Iris), Harvey Keitel (Sport), Cybill Shepard (Betsy), Albert Brooks (Tom), Leonard Harris (Senator Charles Palantine), Peter Boyle (Wizard), Martin Scorsese (Cuckold Husband), Joe Spinell (Personnel Officer)
* (1) Variety Movie Guide, Edited by Derek Elley, New York, 2000
* (2) On the film's Wiki Page a reference is made to Scorsese on Scorsese, a series of interviews with the director. Scorsese told the interviewer that "(...) the film arose from [the] feeling that movies are like dreams, or like taking dope (...); he added that he "(...) [had] tried to induce the feeling of being almost awake."
* (3) Robin Wood on Taxi Driver, in: The International Dictionary of Films and Film Makers, New York, 1985.