The sociopath is often times a very compelling character in fiction. However it is almost always a destructive mindset in real life. However, nowadays we have safety nets with which extreme cases can be identified and hopefully assisted with their condition. However at the time and setting of Taxi Driver (1970’s New York), acquired mental conditions such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) were only recently getting attention and medical research due to veterans of the war in Vietnam coming home displaying symptoms, one such Vietnam veteran being Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro).
Travis has clearly been through traumatic experiences as this fantastically intricate film shows us, his upper torso is disfigured and he cannot sleep at night. His honourable discharge coupled with his injury suggests he faced heavy combat at least once, and he has clear ability with firearms. He was a soldier, but like so many others, he had to re-adjust to civilian life, so now he is a taxi driver.
A side character states to Travis that you are what you do, but it seems you can take the man away from Saigon, but not Saigon out of the man. Travis cannot interact with other people properly. This was a well documented problem with how Americans treated their fighting men coming back from the war, the shift to liberalism, at the time, drove the population to treat the veterans unfairly, somehow blaming them for for unethical military policy in Vietnam. Disenfranchisement with the America they came back to was par for the course for many veterans returning home to a seemingly thankless American public.
So, the movie shows his attempts at civilian life, he charms a woman to come on a date with him in a rather awkward fashion. He does what he can to tell her what she might want to hear, to like and support the same things. However he has been away a long time, he admits he has no great knowledge of anything. So he takes her to a cinema that shows porno movies, the few avenues of entertainment that would have been found in the service. This is too much for her so she leaves, Travis can’t interpret what went wrong and pursues her later, being turned away once again.
This is where the psychosis begins to show, literally even. Martin Scorsese and his editor,in a stroke of genius, set the president for how psychosis would later be portrayed in the visual mediums. They use an editing trick where they loop footage back and forward for a second or two, with some kind of sharp sound effect to accompany it. A look at the character’s warped perception of what is happening. A nod to the acting brilliance of Robert De Niro is necessary at this point, he delivers a truly damaged character with mannerisms that reflects the mental state of Travis perfectly.
Travis thinks, with no malicious intent, that women are objects that need to be saved from the filth he sees in every alleyway and at each street corner. So he rejects civilian life again, throws on his iconic marine corps jacket, buys a bevy of handguns from a traveling salesman and sets to work preparing for his new role as a vigilante.
The film makes a shift in tone from here on in, up to this point the film has been stifling the watcher with the uncomfortable character that is Travis, I sympathise with him deeply, but his life and his interaction with the world around him is always off putting. The lighting is almost always dark and the cinematographer lingers on silences and distressing images, helping to keep my stomach churning.
The tonal shift announces itself, as Scorsese films often do, with a explosive outburst of violence. Travis shoots a man who happens to be robbing the store he frequents. This is somewhat of a justifiable killing if you are that way inclined, but is Travis a hero? Travis failed a hooker who earlier tried to get away from her pimp in his taxi once before, he must track her down so he can atone for his earlier inaction.
And that he does, pays her for her service and she takes him to a nearby motel. However, Travis has no interest in the sex that he paid for, its questionable if he knows what emotional function sex serves at all. He thinks this young woman needs to be rescued from evil men. She insists she does not need saving, her employers are shown to be rather pleasant, for criminals. But the vitriolic disdain for everyone, even the hooker he wants to ‘save’, manifests itself further into his delusional new ego as a vigilante. There will be blood.
So, he kills the pimps in a mighty tension-releasing bout of gunpowder and adrenaline fueled violence, with the poor young woman bearing witness to it all. In the end he lies wounded as the police crowd in, shocked at what lies before them.
Travis survives, somehow. Newspaper clippings on Travis’s apartment wall proclaim him a hero, surviving his mortal wounds. A letter from the young woman’s parents thanks him for saving their child, with no excerpt of how the young woman feels about all this. I got an impression she is not necessarily better off now, she is still trapped, but in a more socially acceptable sort of way.
Socially acceptable, what does that mean anyways? Travis goes back to his civilian job, his vapid friends. The woman he was infatuated with earlier comes back to him, but he flips her off. Perhaps she was a figment of her imagination so he could continue his paranoid viewpoint of people, perhaps the whole film was a fantasy played out within his damaged mind.
When he loses the ability to interpret reality, and his empathy is lost, can anything the psychopathic Travis says or does be taken at face value? Am I in anyway like Travis? Is my moral compass pointed in the right direction? Is my sense of righteousness tainted by contempt?
I believe there is a bit of Travis in all of us, and that is why I think Taxi Driver is such compelling viewing. It lets us indulge in our least civil thoughts. In any case, this is one of the pinnacles of the silver age of cinema, a must see. Thank you for reading.