Taxi Driver is a movie that’s more fun to think about than to watch. It moves with a rather ponderous pace, with long shots of characters staring or significant gaps in conversation that seem to encourage you to contemplate along with Travis Bickle and the people in his life. It lends itself to a naturalism that’s admirable, but most of the time I simply wondered where all of this was going. Your mileage may vary, of course, particularly if you’re quick to pick up on the themes that director Martin Scorcese and writer Paul Schrader were laying down in those long silences.
Even though I found it tough to remain engaged, I was impressed by how long the movie stuck with me. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to read a couple of critiques to get where Schrader was coming from, but even before then it reminded me a lot of a couple of Harlem Renaissance novels I read in high school — Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Travis Bickle would have felt right at home with the protagonists of those two stories, and all three of them struggled to find their place and purpose in society at large. They find themselves at odds with the world for various reasons, and the stories are driven by their attempts to figure out what to do with that.
For Travis, he feels that the world is lacking a moral fiber he considers essential. He likens the streets of New York City to a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, too broken to fix and ripe for destruction. Despite his hatred of the people around him, he longs to be a part of it. At the beginning of the movie he even says that man should not spend too much time in self-reflection. It’s important to go out and be a part of the world.
And so he does. He gets a job as a taxi driver and tries to date a girl he fancies. It turns out he’s not very good at the social aspects of his mission — he takes Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to what basically amounts to a porn flick on one of their early dates, prompting her to break things off rather abruptly. Stung by the rejection, Travis retreats further into himself. What we find in his heart of hearts is a rather ugly disdain for the world even though he enjoys its seedier elements (porn theatres).
His last hope for salvation is the young prostitute Iris (Foster), who he sees as an innocent who’s been swallowed alive by the awfulness of the city around her. They strike up an unlikely friendship, and Travis begins to think that if he can save her, just this one person, then maybe he’ll have saved himself.
The ending can be taken a number of ways, and almost all of them are interesting. Travis’ quest comes to a violent end, and depending on how you see the outcome you can take a few different lessons from it. I think it’s more interesting if you take the ending literally — the movie hasn’t engaged in flights of fancy before, so there’s no reason to think it would start then. When Travis meets Betsy one night sometime later, he picks her up, answers her questions with a confident stoicism, and drops her off by telling her that ride was free of charge.
Iris is saved. Her parents never meet Travis, but write him a letter of gratitude. His quest made the papers, and he’s widely considered a hero for what he’s done. It all wraps up neatly, and Travis’ moral compass seems validated by external acclaim. However, there’s a discordant note there that I think is intentional. Travis still doesn’t understand the world around him; he never determined why Iris made the choices she did, or why Betsy rejected him in the first place. He’s no closer to resolving the boiling pit of trouble in his gut — at best, it’s only quieted for a time. Even though we leave the story with Travis in a happy place, there’s no sense that it will last. There are too many unanswered questions.
The invisible man in Ellison’s novel reaches a level of self-awareness at the end that enables him to make the attempt to rejoin society. Richard Wright discovers that writing is his way of satisfying the hunger he has to put a mark on the world. Both of the protagonists there absorb their experiences and still feel capable of becoming a part of the larger world around them. That sense doesn’t exist here; Travis may have learned the wrong lesson. Instead of becoming a part of society while honoring his own set of virtues, it feels like he views himself as bigger than society, someone who can exert his will on the world around him without being touched by it. His rejection of Betsy at the end is a rejection of the world, and that spells trouble for him later on.
But then, I could be reading this movie all wrong. I get the sense that Bickle is seen as a bit of an anti-hero, and I can’t agree. Despite the fact that his actions have lead to a good outcome, he’s still dangerously unbalanced. There’s still an isolation, a lack of responsibility for the people around him that can’t be admired. Human beings, for better or for worse, are social creatures, and I think Bickle is an example of what happens when we reject that part of our natures. Our thinking gets warped, and even when it comes from a reasonably pure place (Bickle’s longing for a moral world) it can become misanthropic if left to fester.
I think there’s a way of honoring our individuality while still finding a way to integrate into society. Some of us will always have a place as outliers, people who see the group from a perspective most people don’t. It’s a struggle to fill that role; it can be lonely, and more often than not it’s rife with misunderstanding. But part of the job, as it were, is to find a way to explain your perspective and individual beliefs in a way that the whole will understand. That requires patience, persistence, and a self-knowledge that is quite difficult to attain. Ellison’s Invisible Man is a great example of someone who’s managed it. And Travis Bickle is a great example of someone who hasn’t.