Here Is a Man Who Would Not Take It Anymore
Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese
As he prepares to assassinate senator Charles Palantine, Travis Bickle poses heroically in his apartment and rehearses his lines.
“Here is a man who would not take it anymore, who would not... let...”
He slowly turns to face the camera. When he forgets his line, the shot starts over, like a record skipping.
“A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit…”
As he says this, the camera looks down at him lying on his bed in his boots, jeans, and military jacket, curled up into the foetal position.
Travis Bickle finally draws the gun on himself in the mirror, having rehearsed exactly what he will say, convinced of the moral importance of his mission. It’s a scene that is ominous, tragic, ironic, and pititful, all in one breath. A walking contradiction. It encapsulates everything that is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
War veteran Travis Bickle has trouble sleeping at night, so he takes a job as a taxi driver. He wants to work long hours and is willing to go to the most dangerous parts of New York. From the opening scene in which we’re told all of this, it’s hard to get a read on Travis; he’s certainly shy, with a wry smile and an odd sense of humour, but is there anything actually wrong with him, or is he just awkward? He seems to have no friends. When he hangs out with his fellow cabbies after clocking, he doesn’t join their conversations, and is unresponsive to their questions. Most of his free time is spent roaming around town, watching television, going to porno theatres, drinking from a flask, and taking pills of some sort.
From the moment he sees her, Travis becomes infatuated with Besty, a volunteer for presidential candidate Charles Palantine. He boldly approaches her while she’s at work and asks for a date, convinced that there is some kind of connection between them. Betsy is not so sure. She is on the line between flattered and creeped out, but is ultimately charmed by Travis, and agrees to go out with him. She quickly changes her mind when he takes her to a porno flick. Travis is hurt and confused by his rejection; he is so far removed from society that he doesn’t understand what he did wrong.
Everything about Taxi Driver sets you on edge. Many of Travis’ interactions are awkward and confrontational, and feel like they could erupt into violence at any point. Sunny scenes of daytime New York are broken up with very dark night-time shots, in which danger appears to be lurking in every corner. The musical score – a kind of jazzy motif that weaves in and out – is silky and seductive, before suddenly lurching into booming brass horns, like something out of a horror film. While someone is talking to Travis, the camera will focus on a passerby that he is staring down: the pimps, drug dealers, and prostitutes who are the filth of the city he wants cleaned up.
So much of the story is told indirectly, through lighting and music and clever camera shots. In one of the most subtle scenes, Travis calls up Betsy to apologise on the phone. His back is to the camera, and we can hear his voice, but not hers. It’s a long shot – over a minute long – that slowly moves away from Travis to focus on an empty hall, making his apology feel especially embarrassing and self-conscious.
It’s worth comparing this scene to the final gunbattle, which plays out in horrific slow motion and excrutiating detail, with a hellish red hue bathing everyone. It ends with the camera panning throughout the apartment, so we can see all of the death and carnage that has been wrought. The movie is more willing to show you violence than rejection; it’s easier for Travis to wreak violence than to confront rejection.
Travis’ attempts to mimic the effortless social behaviour he sees around him are flimsy and put-on. He is constantly putting on a character, as when he rehearses what he will say in confrontations with the scum of the city in his mirror. Yet despite every scene in this movie being about Travis, we never learn much of his personal life or background. What we do find out hints at deeper troubles. When he writes a letter to his parents back in the Midwest, he apologises for not visiting like he promised, and claims to be working for the government and to have a girlfriend. Why exactly is he in New York? How long has he been there? Why was he honourably discharged from the army?
After condemning the city as unredeemable, he buys an assortment of guns and begins getting in shape and practicing with them. During one of these scenes we see a huge scar or burn across his back. Is it from his time in Vietnam? It’s possible that Travis is suffering from PTSD and cannot fit back into ordinary society as a result. There’s little said about this, but it doesn’t seem to completely explain his character either; he says in a monologue that he has always felt alienated: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”
What is clear is that Travis struggles to fit into society. He has a strong sense of morality and justice, but nothing to channel that into. What role is there for people like Travis in an age where there are no more heroes? Where the firm lines between good and evil have blurred?
His only respite is to find a cause to latch onto. After buying his guns, he toys with the idea of joining the secret service. Because of Betsy, he becomes enamoured of Charles Palantine, and shows genuine excitement when he picks him up in his cab one night. Yet he admits to Palantine that he doesn’t follow politics at all, and when Palantine – a bleeding-heart liberal – asks him what the biggest problem is with the city, Travis goes on an apocalyptic tirade about how all the scum in the city should be washed away. Palantine’s campaign manager looks at Palantine, as if to say, “your biggest supporter is this guy?”
His motives for assassinating Palantine are not political, but psychological: he desperately wants to be involved in anything that will validate his existence. When he can’t obtain it from Betsy or Palantine, he looks for it in Iris, a child prostitute that he repeatedly bumps into on the street. Travis is convinced she needs saving, but Iris is somewhat indifferent.
There is a clever dissonance in this movie between what Travis says and what he does. While lamenting junkies and pushers, Travis is constantly taking swigs from his flask and pills from his bottle (it’s never clear what these are, but given Travis can never sleep, they could be amphetamines). Travis condemns prostitution, yet frequents porno theatres. Travis says he’s going to get himself in shape, yet lounges around all day watching television and eating takeaways. And Travis wants to punish those who hurt or abuse the weak, but also needs there to be someone hurt or abused, so he can rescue them.
Travis may realise there is something wrong with him, but is too far gone to get off the path he is heading down. His final attempt to turn back is the scene where he asks his co-worker Wizard for advice. They have an awkward conversation that dances around the matter. Travis gets as far as admitting that things have gotten him down, that he has “bad ideas” and wants to “go out and really do something”. Wizard tells Travis that a man eventually becomes his job, and advises Travis to have some fun while he is young and stop worrying about things. Travis grins and calls it “the stupidest thing he’s ever heard,” to which Wizard growls back, “I don’t even know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
It’s a piece of dramatic irony: we know this is a desperate call for help by Travis, but none of the characters realise it. Wizard says that a man becomes his job and this is especially true of Travis: the only job he knows is that of a soldier, and though his time in the army is over, his is still the mindset of a soldier, to whom any conflict could erupt into an existential struggle.
So Travis carries on down his path of self-destruction. His plan is to assassinate Palantine at one of his rallies. He shaves his head into a mohawk, which was the practice of some American soldiers in the Vietnam war before going into especially dangerous battles. Dressed in military boots and jacket, and armed with four different guns, his self-imposed mission is imbued with the gravity of a righteous war - even if it’s never actually clear why he wants to kill Palantine, or what this will achieve.
A secret agent spots him at the rally though, and Travis runs away. He winds up at the brothel insead where Iris is pimped out. A shockingly violent scene plays out in which Travis guns down two men. Iris begs him not to shoot a third. He ignores her pleas and shoots him in the head from point-blank range - right in front of Iris - then attempts to shoot himself. But he has no more bullets. Nearly dead from his wounds, Travis collapses onto the couch. The music reaches a horrifying crescendo as police burst into the room. With a leer on his face, Travis weakly raises a finger to his temple like a gun, and “shoots” himself.
Yet somehow, he survives this. He returns to his normal life a hero for having killed the pimps and freed Iris. The newspapers praise him and Iris’ parents send him a letter of thanks. Back at work, he is now chatting and joking around with Wizard and the others before hopping back in his cab for a fare: it’s Betsy, who, seen through the rear-vision mirror, looks especially radiant and dream-like. Rather than being creeped out, she now admires Travis, and as she departs from the cab, there is the unspoken hope that Travis might have another opportunity with her. The final scene is Travis in his cab, seeing something disturbing in the rear-vision mirror, with the music “skipping” a beat, before the credits roll.
Many see the finale as a kind of dream, and that has some substance to it. Travis has somehow recovered from his wounds and is back at work almost immediately. And he is shown how he always wanted to be seen by everyone else: as a hero, like he rehearsed in the mirror, with friends, a job, and maybe even a girlfriend. In becoming a hero, he has obtained what he could not on his return from the morally ambiguous Vietnam War. The final skip tells us there is something amiss about all this, that what we are seeing is not quite right.
So it a dream? Did Travis die? In his original review of the movie, Roger Ebert wrote: “I am not sure there can be an answer to these questions. The end sequence plays like music, not drama; It completes the story on an emotional, not a literal level.”
And while that’s certainly true, we’re given few reasons to believe the ending is just a dream. The skip - and Travis’ disturbed look in the mirror - is a warning. It tells us that, despite becoming the hero that he wanted to be, Travis is still a volatile man who, had he been just a few seconds faster, would have shot Charles Palantine and become a villain instead. The same energy and rage that he channelled into the shootout with the pimps could have so easily been directed the other way. And it’s still there, within him, waiting and lurking, like in one of the dark corners in Scorsese’s shots of New York City. The final scene – of Travis in his taxi seeing something disturbing – syncs up almost perfectly with its first – of a taxi plunging out of the darkness and through a plume of steam or sewer gas, as the jazz motif takes a dark and paranoid turn.
After writing about loneliness in his journal, Travis laments the unfolding of his life: “The days move along with regularity, over and over, one day indistiguishable from the next, a long, continuous chain. Then suddenly - there is a change.” The cyclical nature of this movie - closing looping back into opening, its musical score veering between horror and happiness - suggests that Travis is still a danger. He is not a saved man. The real Travis Bickle may be a mystery, but we have glimpsed what everyone else has not: that he is a loose cannon, unable to adapt to civilian life, and ready to explode again at any time. The same energies and motives that inspired him to heroism may yet compel him to terrible deeds, and if he cannot tame them or find an outlet, he will turn on himself – or others.
There’s a quote from the poem Fire on the Hills by Robinson Jeffers that seems particularly fitting to Travis Bickle: “the destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy.”
From his review of Taxi Driver, originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, 1976. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-taxi-driver-1976 09/07/2021.