Why Travis Bickle Is the Hero We Deserve

By  · Published on September 4th, 2013

Travis Bickle

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they compare Travis Bickle to Don Quixote and try to understand the many contradictions of Martin Scorsese’s angry masterpiece.

In the #31 (tied with The Godfather: Part II) movie on the list, Robert De Niro shaves his head, fights with a mirror and tries to rights society’s wrongs with a bullet.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So with Taxi Driver we have a truly bizarre beast of a movie. America’s sweetheart Jodie Foster plays a child prostitute, our champion for justice tries to assassinate a man running for Senate, everyone seems to have a nickname (Sport?) and it was put out by a major studio. What the hell is going on here?

Landon: I’ve probably watched this movie more times than any other on this list, but like you I’m continually flabbergasted by some of the facts of it that you outlined. It’s a profound portrait of loneliness and psychosis in a dense city that has lost any sense of community or coherent identity (see the differences between this NYC and the NYC of the early 20th century re: De Niro’s role in The Godfather Part II).

That a movie about an obsessive loner and latent racist who frequents porn theaters and becomes a vigilante was bankrolled by a Hollywood studio the year before Star Wars came out is increasingly astounding to me every time I watch it. It’s a movie of its time – a beloved movie that’s aged incredibly well, but Taxi Driver is anything but timeless.

Scott: Glad you brought up Star Wars because Carrie Fisher was up for the role of Iris here, and I’ve always wondered what would have happened if she’d gotten it.

Landon: She would have later starred in Nell.

Scott: “Tay in the wind, fuckers.”

But seriously – would she have nailed down the Oscar nomination? Would she have been able to be Princess Leia? It’s an interesting parallel universe created by two iconic films that couldn’t be more different from one another.
And to add to the pile of weirdness, Taxi Driver delivered a sweet new catch phrase. It’s like Travis Bickle was a 1930s serial hero or a 1980s action star ahead of his time.

Landon: And what if Star Wars wasn’t a success, and studios continued backing movies like Network and this? A movie as dark and unrelenting as Taxi Driver suggests to me that, in terms of contemplating the darkness of humanity and the loss of the American Dream, there were perhaps no other places to go. We as a society were fucked and we all knew it. Star Wars in that respect can be seen as a necessary and desperate recourse to fantasy that we haven’t left since in order to not have to acknowledge the things presented to us in a film like Taxi Driver.
And “You talkin’ to me?” might be the best example of a catchphrase that has a different tone in a film than it does in its social uses.

Scott: I think you’ve just shown how Star Wars’ popularity saved the 70s.
Or at least gave it, A NEW HOPE.

Landon: The empire of New Hollywood never struck back.

Scott: I’m not sorry about that pun, but I really do love the point you’re making about Network – mostly because I imagine Bickle and Howard Beale hanging out together.

Landon: All the President’s Men came out then, too. 1976 was a rough year. But what won Best Picture? Rocky. So maybe we were already on the hopeful path.

Scott: Reasons why I’m terrified of the entire decade. My mental picture is closer to Escape From New York because of stuff like Taxi Driver.
But let’s talk about Bickle and his status as a hero – delivered in a time where black comedy and Don Quixote-level satire could be delivered from a big studio.

Landon: I like the analogy. We are also allowed to see the world the way Travis sees it, but we also watch him seeing it. We understand Travis, but I don’t think anybody blamed Cybill Shepard for keeping her distance. It’s an interesting approach to a character study.

But what’s Travis’s windmill?

Scott: There’s also a lot to like about Bickle. He served his country and was discharged honorably, he works for a living, and he’s ultimately searching for a connection to another human being. Betsy and Easy combine to make for a weird version of Dulcinea, and he brings a gun to assassinate his windmill.

But the real link is between the farce of both pointing out the possibility that the world is crazy while someone like Bickle or Alonso Quijano or Howard Beale is sane for wanting to return to a state of better civility and communal engagement. With these movies, the craziest person is often making the most sense.

Landon: Yeah, it’s always interesting to me how Bickle is, or rather sees himself as, the moral center of a decaying world – and that’s exactly how society treats his vigilante justice at the film’s end, which I think is the film’s best bit of irony. If he’s crazy, he’s in many ways a product of the society that made him. But I’m pretty skeptical about Travis. Especially because he’s an unreliable narrator of his own life. I’m skeptical of his own story of his role in the military, about who he mails his letters to, etc. I think the fantasy he creates becomes very hard to navigate.

Scott: Yes, it’s definitely uncomfortable to romanticize Travis Bickle (although we’ve done it with Knights of Yore in a way that Game of Thrones pisses all over). Not least of all because it puts us in despicable company.

But even though we get to see his loneliness and the complexity of his anger and violence – he’s essentially a robust version of Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish.

We get to live with Bickle here, but in Death Wish the feeling of an Insane Society is given an even more visceral punch because we see 1) Paul Kersey’s wife and daughter raped and killed/put into a coma followed directly by 2) the police shrugging.

You want to throw things at the screen in that moment, just as you find yourself cheering (maybe softly) when Travis murders the hell out of a bunch of exploitative scum.

Landon: But I think the difference here is the ambivalence the movies themselves feel toward their protagonists. Bickle no doubt sees himself as Charles Bronson, but the film doesn’t. “Death Wish” is an appropriate way to describe the proposed catharsis of vigilante justice (even if you’re merely making a gun with your finger tips). But to call Bickle a hero or a villain would be to endorse a moralism that I think the film (but not Bickle) rejects. He’s the ultimate anti-hero, and I think one of the most complex characters in Hollywood, specifically because he defies these categories entirely as a subject. We always see the world of Taxi Driver doubly, through Bickle’s and outside of Bickle’s eyes.

The film doesn’t disagree with Bickle that New York is a shit hole – that’s why and how he can never be written off as a character. his fantasy doesn’t stem from nothing. He’s reacting to a real ugliness. It’s the fact that we have the moment of soft but hopefully discomfiting satisfaction that gives the film its power.

Scott: Then maybe Death Wish is the more cathartic film because it’s made to enjoy with popcorn. It’s easier to pump your fist in the air and not think about it.

Landon: Exactly.

Scott: Taxi Driver gives us a vigilante and some form of justice, but it raises more squirming questions about who we are when we watch and appreciate this man’s murderous side.

Landon: And it also did so while giving us the hilarious line “How’s everything in the pimp business?”
It’s the “Big gulps, huh?” of the ‘70s.

Scott: So how crazy would Travis Bickle be in 2013?

Landon: I think the ending of the film says it all in terms of his 15 minutes of fame. To people that didn’t spend two hours with him, he’s not in the least bit crazy.. He’s a hero. I like that you brought up Death Wish, because I think the scale between Paul Kersey and Travis Bickle is exactly what we invoke when we think of and talk about vigilante justice and gun rights. One person sees cleaning the streets, another person sees someone unstable with a gun.

But what none of the newspapers ask is how such a man is capable of such brutal force.

Scott: He was mad as hell, he wasn’t going to take it anymore, and there are still plenty of windmills to go around.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to a re-release that boasts, “From the director of Hugo!”

Next Time: Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves

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