One of the seminal works of the American New Wave, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver, a noirish masterpiece about loneliness and alienation with a powerful ambiguity at its core, raises morally important issues without ever leaning towards clear-cut or sanctimonious answers.
Is Travis Bickle a deranged man with psychopathic tendencies or an avenging angel with noble purposes? Are Bickle’s racism and misogyny utterly distinguishable from the other characters’ or purely a reflection of their time and place? Is he really an outsider or simply an extreme representation of that society’s darker side?
Insomniac cab driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) cruises the streets of New York City in search of a purpose for his life. Contemptuous of the perceived decadence of American society and confronted by despair and hopelessness, Bickle attempts to fill his metaphysical void by courting campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). Before the relationship can flourish, socially inept Bickle sabotages it and spirals down into a series of violent acts.
Scriptwriter Paul Schrader, inspired by Arthur Bremer’s diary, wanted the story to allude to ‘God’s Lonely Man’. Rather more interesting is how Bickle’s revolt against society exposes the contradiction in the belief of the power of the individual.
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In a country like the United States, with a strong individualistic ethos, the tale of the person who fights for justice against the system has always had such a powerful appeal. It’s no surprise that the western is the American genre par excellence. The lone cowboy helped to cement in the minds of its own people, America as a special, superior, God’s country. In America, a man can always make a difference.
Travis Bickle is a man who believes in this idea. When he sets out to help pubescent prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), exploited by pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel), Travis is enacting the most mythical of American ideals. Inspired by John Wayne in countless allegorical westerns, and fully trained by the Vietnam war, Bickle simply acts out what he has learned to be the paradigm of his society.
How ironic then, that this anti-hero trying to change the world – with disastrous consequences – it is exactly the one who gets away with it. By the end of the film, the most important issue is whether Bickle’s violence is the mitigation of his contemptuous feelings or it is motivated by deeper psychological problems.
I would argue that a clear-cut answer cannot be found in either Schrader’s script or Scorsese’s finished film. The story stays ambiguous throughout. Obviously, Bickle is not like most people; he does not stay within the bounds of acceptable behaviour. However, he’s got enough traits to be thought as someone who might have acted differently. Empathy for Iris’ plight and his suicidal attempt at the end of the film, after killing three people, might suggest a mind which is not totally alienated. Throughout the film Bickle acts as if living in a bubble: incapable of understanding anyone he encounters. But even though misguided, at the end, he reaches some kind of purpose.
Similarly with the question of his racism. Sure, based on Travis’ attitude, he is probably a racist. But is this racism enough of a motivation for his killing spree? To understand Bickle as racially motivated solely from his scornful posture towards African-Americans, and then ignore his awkward courting attempt of the African-American at the porno theater (Diahnne Abbot, De Niro’s wife-to-be) is to ignore the complexity of his mind – and ours too. If overtly behaviour is enough to justify his racism, then it would also be to mitigate it. Like the film itself, Travis Bickle is more complicated than many people seem to admit.
Furthermore, the society in which Bickle lives cannot get away with its own responsibility. That’s not to argue that individuals should not be held accountable for their actions. Travis Bickle is a very disturbed man with strong tendencies towards psychopathy, but it is also true that he felt abandoned by and alienated from his own society. And with some justification too. After the sacrifices he’s made for his country, fighting an unpopular, and to some, totally unjustified war, it is natural that he would expect more support to deal with his traumas and more sympathetic ears to hear his voice.
For the keen viewer, Taxi Driver remains ambiguous towards the controversial issues which it deals with. And this ambiguity creates a texture so rich that questions will forever be raised by the experience of viewing it.