Taxi Driver is the defining film for every bastard child of our times. How many men today can relate to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a fucked up, lonely loser trying to make rent and find love in a disgusting, criminal, and uncaring concrete hive? The guy is nuts, but who could blame him? Why would anybody be normal in the world he inhabits? His job is dumb, his apartment small, and his surroundings hostile. (Though it’s worth mentioning, today as an Uber Driver, your paycheck would be smaller, along with your apartment, and if you’re white like Travis – the surroundings even more hostile.) There is sex everywhere, but it doesn’t mitigate the loneliness, the doldrums, or the pervasive violence.
Viewers identify with him. It’s not because he represents them as they would like to be, nor how they think others perceive them, but it’s because it’s how they – at their most pessimistic – see themselves. His moral view of the world is spot on, but he cannot relate to anyone he meets. He is exhausted and agitated at all times, yet cannot sleep at night. Travis’ hellscape is all too familiar.
When he first asks Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the angelic campaign worker, out, a big part of her draw to him is his willingness to call her out and announce that she is lonely, and that together they might be able to do something about that. Travis is right, so Betsy says “yes.” But that emotional insight was not enough for Travis to know how the game is played, and he still fucks everything up by being an incel porn-addicted weirdo.
Travis, like us, might be able to diagnose the world righteously, but as that doesn’t allow any of us to navigate it better. Seeing evil won’t protect you from your own worst impulses; knowing evil won’t inculcate you from hurting others through your own personal flaws. Travis, like us, feels lost and seeks advice, companionship, and meaning, but every path he takes to find one or the other leads like a maze back to himself. The life lessons his colleagues present him with are garbage. The women he desires are either out of his league or ensnared even worse than he is in the travails and sicknesses of the concrete jungle they share. And the politicians who preside over this mess aren’t messiahs, just hucksters. As the film progresses, Travis learns the hard way, over and over again, that his life is only up to him. There’s no community or deus ex machina coming to save him; he will have to take matters into his own hands.
Before Travis befriends a young prostitute, Iris “Easy” Steensma (Jodie Foster) and becomes arch-rivals with her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), his foil is Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a presidential candidate for whom Betsy, his blonde obsession, works (and, it is suggested, to whom she is physically attracted). Without the letter “n,” this candidate’s surname would be “palatine,” meaning “possessing royal privileges” or “of or relating to a palace, especially of a Roman or Holy Roman Emperor.” However, his slogan is “We are the People.” (Not, “We are the People,” remember.) In the first scene that she is in, Betsy is accused of writing campaign materials that sound like she is selling Palantine like mouthwash; she responds, “We are selling mouthwash.” Travis, meanwhile, is rawer and cruder than a slab of meat.
Throughout the film, the distance between Senator Palantine, the populist politician, and “the people” is shown over and over again. For example, one of his political rivals, Goodwin, uses the slogan “A Return to Greatness,” which can be seen on an election poster hanging in the front window of the restaurant where all the impeccably working-class cabbies hang out. It’s in that restaurant that Travis has a confrontational staring contest with a group of black pimps, and it is there that his colleagues first tell Travis that he should consider getting a “piece.”
At one point, Senator Palantine finds himself in Travis’ cab with some aides. One of them chirps away about how they should have waited for their limo. Travis interrupts them to tell them how happy he is that a politician he admires has entered his humble automobile. Then the two of them chat, with the candidate churning out the cringeworthy line, “I have learned more about America from riding in taxi cabs than in all the limos in the country.” He then asks Travis, “What is the one thing about this country that bugs you the most?” This sends Travis into a monologue about the wretched refuse of New York City and how it all needs to get cleaned up, one way or another. The Senator clearly becomes uncomfortable, and as the cab pulls up to their destination, the Senator lets out a weak pleasantry, “Well, uh, I think I know what you mean, Travis. But it’s not gonna be easy. We’re gonna have to make some radical changes,” and after one of his aides leaves a tip, they disappear into an luxurious building.
Radical changes? In what sense, one wonders. Probably not the kind Travis was considering. Palantine resembles George McGovern, and aside from his interest in welfare and representing “the people,” the only other hint we have about his views are that his initials suggest the “Communist Party.” Meanwhile, Travis’ initials suggest tuberculosis, an unforgiving ailment historically rampant in unclean urban areas.
The next person to jump into his car is a visibly stoned and frightened pubescent prostitute who begs Travis to take her away. A pimp shows up (the aforementioned “Sport,” who was black in the original script but which was changed out of the fear of the controversy it might engender) and roughly rips her out of the backseat, tosses Travis a tip, and the two disappear into the night. Later, as Travis drives through a black neighborhood, “teens” pelt his vehicle with eggs and epithets – something that politicians like Palantine could never protect him from.
What might protect him, Travis concludes, are firearms – as an earlier overexcited and jealous client implicitly suggested to him. It’s been the American way since the beginning, and as a veteran, he knows how to use them. It’s just shy of the one-hour mark of the film that Travis arms himself. The dealer offers him drugs as well, but he turns them down. All he needs now are tools and self-improvement. Flannery O’Connor unknowingly described him about a quarter-century earlier: “a careful, placed expression and his face had a fragile look as if it might have been broken and stuck together again, or like a gun no one knows is loaded.” Or like King Kong – who adorns a military patch on Travis’ signature green jacket. Like him, our protagonist might just soon know the pleasures of being unchained and set lose in New York City.
The first person to underestimate the power of Travis’ concentrated will is a black thug (Nat Grant) who sticks up a mini-market while Travis is shopping. Travis blows him away with one shot to the head. The Hispanic store owner (Vic Argo) thanks Travis profusely, and lets Travis leave the scene, promising to come up with a story for the cops, given that Travis doesn’t have a permit for his gun. It isn’t long after that encounter that Travis, in a flash of insight, busts his television set beyond repair. Vigilante justice and the rejection of material middle class comforts – it’s hard to imagine President Palantine approving, but Travis is awakening all the same, and getting a taste for what it’s like to stand tall. After all, they only call it “race war” when we fight back.
Travis takes everything about him that is broken and turns it into a weapon against all that broke him. He knows he can’t fix himself, but he knows there are things perhaps only he can fix . . . And that’s a fantasy not a few of us have had.
With no TV to kill time anymore, and one righteous killing under his belt, Travis strikes out into the world with confidence, tracking down that terrified cherubic prostitute. Still in his scouting phase, Travis plays by the rules to get to her: He speaks with her pimp, pays the motel, claims he wants sex, and so on. The men in charge of the world Travis wants to take down, unbeknownst to them, call him “cowboy.” But they don’t know how right they are. Travis is coming at them from another age, another perspective, riding straight out of the Old West to reestablish order and chivalry. And once he gets alone with Iris, his rescue plan for her starts to take shape, as the dire necessity of him doing so becomes apparent. All alone in the room, once Iris stops trying to force herself on him, she quietly laments, “When I’m not stoned, I’ve got no place else to go” – because “stoned” is a place, a faraway place right at hand, and without it, quite a few Americans couldn’t name their home.
At breakfast with Iris the next day, Travis notes to her that he’s no square and that she’s not somehow “woke.” He confronts her with the fact that she’s just a powerless whore. Iris equivocates and claims her life isn’t that bad, and delivers the signature self-justifying line of the cultural Left since time immemorial: “Hey, what makes you so good, anyway?” As always, the answer is in the question. In the next scene, Iris confesses to her pimp that she doesn’t like what she does. But he sweet-talks her worries away like any and every sleazeball that ever walked the Earth, duping her into thinking that she means the world to him, and that he needs her. That scene quickly cuts to Travis at the firing range. Earlier in the film, Travis had poetically waxed, “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” The ancients had a rebuttal to that: carpe diem.
The next scene is perhaps the most famous one in the film (apart from the “You talking to me?” one). Travis arrives at a rally where Palantine is speaking, intending to assassinate him. But his plan doesn’t pan out. Security is too tight, and Travis sticks out too much. Instead of pulling the trigger, he flees. It’s from there that he goes to the whorehouse, where the movie’s explosive climax boils over.
Why did Travis do that? Why not wait for another shot at the Senator? Why switch to the pimp and the johns? Travis never says. The viewer is left hanging, with no indicator to guide them as Travis silently heads from sunlit Columbus Circle to the house of night.
Many critics and viewers say that Travis simply didn’t have the means to kill a politician. He tried, saw the logistical infeasibility, nearly got busted, and moved on to an easier target. But it’s not so simple. Palantine is his rival when it came to Betsy, a woman who refused his affections. Sport, meanwhile, represents his rival when it comes to Iris, a girl he feels obligated to protect. Both men, pimp and politician, represent snake-oil salesmen on a societal level: Both offer hollow solutions to real problems. But only one of the two is actively hurting one of Travis’ two love interests, and only one can be rescued by killing the man she works for. Iris is underage, and after the killing will be scooped up by the authorities or her parents. On the other hand, Betsy is an idealistic white liberal who will be swept up by just another progressive mouthpiece with a lock on the “college dreamers” voting demographic.
But moreover, Travis is on a quest, a mission, to better himself. Any process of self-improvement requires that you amputate the most toxic parts of your personality and behavior. To that end, Travis has a lot more in common with Sport than with Charles Palantine. Travis could probably never bring himself to be a pimp, or even sleep with a prostitute, but he does have a sweet-tooth for pornography, which is a cinematic representation of all of the above. Travis knows this is a filthy habit of his, and he saw what it cost him in terms of his relationship with Betsy. But what ties or similarities does Travis have to a progressive politician? In other words, killing Charles Palantine never made any sense. Killing Palantine would not have saved Betsy, and his death wouldn’t help vanquish any of Travis’ demons. Sport, meanwhile, was a man born to be killed by our protagonist.
Somewhere, in the unseen subconscious, Travis puts this all together, and the next thing you know, a cowboy reached the gates of an urban den of filth and villainy, never to be the same again.
So three cheers for Travis Bickle, an American hero.
 Travis: Well . . . Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It’s full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. Whatever-whoever becomes the President should just [Travis honks the horn] really clean it up. You know what I mean? Sometimes I go out and I smell it, I get headaches it’s so bad, you know…They just never go away you know . . . It’s like . . . I think that the President should just clean up this whole mess here. You should just flush it right down the fuckin’ toilet.