I am inaugurating a series on Classics of Right-Wing Cinema with Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver. For the purposes of this series, what makes a film “Right-wing” is its subject matter, its message, or simply how it resonates with people on the Right, regardless of the filmmaker’s intent. Please feel free to nominate films for this series in the comments below.
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It began with Dylann Roof. Since then, the Molotov cocktail of autism, inceldom (involuntary celibacy), gallantry, vengeance, and mass murder has exploded with such regularity that I keep dusting off a boilerplate article to condemn it whenever the perpetrators are connected with White Nationalism. But even with Roof’s case, I felt that I had seen this all before. Then I remembered where: Taxi Driver.
Taxi Driver is Martin Scorsese’s breakout film and remains one of his greatest achievements, alongside Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Gangs of New York. Taxi Driver is an unforgettable portrait of Travis Bickle, an alienated loner in an urban hellscape who decides to die in a hail of bullets and thus seeks out opportunities to dispense vigilante justice. Despite his best efforts, however, Travis accidentally survives and is hailed as a hero for rescuing a child prostitute from a pimp.
Any movie involving vigilantism is inherently anti-liberal, which makes it grist for Right-wing viewers and reviewers, regardless of the vigilante’s or the director’s intentions. Liberalism is the idea that we can be governed by laws, not men. Vigilantism takes place when the legal system breaks down and citizens feel the need to take action themselves. But Taxi Driver is even more Right-wing today because this is the age of the Alt-Right and incel spree killer.
Taxi Driver fuses urban grittiness and emotional power with daring avant-garde cinematic techniques. Even though it was made on a shoestring budget, everything about this film is first-rate: the script by Paul Schrader (who went on to write and direct Mishima); the performances, especially Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle and Jodie Foster as Iris, a twelve-year-old prostitute; the cinematography of Michael Chapman; and the lyrical but also menacing musical score by Bernard Herrmann (his last, before dying of a heart attack, aged sixty-four).
Taxi Driver was a commercial and critical success. It won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1976, as well as many other nominations and awards. Taxi Driver is also regularly featured on critics’ “best” lists.
So who is Travis Bickle? Travis Bickle is a twenty-six-year-old honorably discharged Marine from someplace where they wear cowboy clothes. He has drifted away from home and family to New York City at its low-point in the sleazy seventies: corrupt, crime-ridden, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and swarming with rats, junkies, pimps, hookers, and other vermin. Taxi Driver was shot during the heatwave of 1975. You can practically feel it. There was a sanitation strike. You can practically smell it.
Travis suffers from insomnia. And we know from Fight Club how crazy lack of sleep can make you. His insomnia might have something to do with his diet of junk food and steady consumption of alcohol from paper bags and flasks. He also pops pills from prescription bottles. We don’t know if they are uppers, downers, or anti-psychotics.
To while away his sleepless nights, Travis has been hanging out at porn theaters and all-night eateries, but at the beginning of the film, he takes a job driving a cab. He is looking for long, exhausting, draining hours, so he can finally sleep.
Travis is also desperately lonely: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. . . . I’m God’s lonely man.” He tries to connect with his fellow cabbies. But, being on the night-shift, they are almost as weird and asocial as he is.
One day, Travis becomes infatuated with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker for Senator Charles Palantine, who is running in his party’s presidential primary. (His party is not stated, but he’s clearly supposed to be a Democrat.) Betsy is beautiful. Travis believes she is lonely too. After watching her for a while, he walks into the office and asks her on a date. Betsy accepts. Travis is strange, but he’s not bad-looking and has an off-kilter charisma.
Travis blows it on their second date, however, when he takes her to a pornographic movie. It is painfully awkward. After that, he is reduced to increasingly desperate stalking behavior. He is convinced that Betsy needs saving from her lonely, hellish existence, and he becomes increasingly indignant that she does not want to be saved.
The choice to take Betsy to a dirty movie makes it abundantly clear that Travis has issues. So does a bizarre greeting card that he sends to his parents. He has a shaky grasp of socially appropriate behavior.
Travis spends too much time alone. He broods and ruminates. He tells Wizard, one of his fellow drivers played by Peter Boyle, “I got some bad ideas in my head.” Travis does not, however, come off as delusional. Instead, he is angry at the sleaze and injustice that surround him: “All the animals come out at night. Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets.” He becomes increasingly vengeful. He starts thinking that maybe he will be that rain, a hard rain.
One wonders, though, why Travis continues to subject himself to this world. Not every city is as dystopian as New York. He could also focus on better neighborhoods and better fares. But he doesn’t. The truth is that Travis is a glutton for punishment. He has a masochistic, self-defeating personality.
Travis does not fantasize about making the world a better place for himself. He doesn’t feel he has a future. Instead, he fantasizes about dying honorably. He is what I call an “honorable defeatist.” He feels doomed to failure, so to salvage some sense of agency and worth, he wants to take control of the process and destroy himself over a matter of principle.
When I first saw Taxi Driver, I assumed Travis suffered from post-traumatic stress from his time in the Marines. Perhaps he saw action in Vietnam. But there is no mention of serving in Vietnam. There are no flashbacks. Also, Travis lies to his parents and then to Iris, saying he is doing secret work for the government. Maybe he was lying about the Marines too.
Today, I look at Travis and see someone on the autism spectrum who is also an incel. He does not present as a schizophrenic, like John Hinckley, Jr., who was inspired by Taxi Driver to shoot President Reagan, or like mass shooters Jared Loughner and James Holmes. Instead, he seems a lot like Dylann Roof, Patrick Crusius, Brenton Tarrant, and John Earnest: all ideologically motivated honorable defeatists.
Betsy isn’t the only object of Travis’ gallantry. He also wants to rescue Iris, a twelve-year-old prostitute from a pimp played by Harvey Keitel. Originally, the pimp was supposed to be black. There are plenty of black pimps on the streets in Taxi Driver. But Schrader thought it might be somehow “racist” to cast a black actor in this particular role. It is not clear why it was not “anti-Semitic” to cast Keitel though.
When his relationship with Betsy goes south, Travis buys some guns and learns to use them. He begins dieting and exercising. He is training for some sort of confrontation with evil. He is not planning on surviving. He enjoys the sense of purpose. He may even enjoy some sleep.
Is Travis a psycho or a hero? A case can be made for both.
Travis is gallant. He is a knight, a warrior. It is manly and noble to protect weaker people, especially women and children, from evil. It is also the height of nobility to be concerned solely with doing one’s duty, regardless of personal consequences. Whether Travis was really in the Marines or not, he prefers death to dishonor. He will do the right thing, even if it kills him.
So how is Travis a psycho?
Travis’s first target is Senator Charles Palantine. Why shoot Palantine? Travis doesn’t really care about politics. He has no strong feelings about the candidate or the issues. He was ready to vote for Palantine when he was infatuated with Betsy. Now that she has dumped him, he wants to kill Palantine. Travis originally wanted to help Betsy. It is not clear how killing Palantine would do that. Maybe he is trying to hurt her. But he’s just a political candidate. How much emotional investment does Travis think she has in him?
Perhaps, then, Travis’ purpose is not connected to Betsy. Palantine has a Secret Service detail. If Travis shoots Palantine and exchanges fire with the Secret Service, he will probably be killed. That’s his real goal.
Travis can also count on the fact that by killing a political candidate, he will be famous. He won’t be around for a trial, so people will speculate about his motives. Some will construct accounts of his crime that cast him in a noble light. In short, Travis is a pathological narcissist. He’s another Herostratus, who burned the temple of Artemis in Ephesus so we would talk about him today.
The problem with Travis is not that he is willing to die to do the right thing. The problem is that his primary goal is to die, for which he is willing to do anything, even wrong or stupid things.
Disaster is averted, however, when Travis is spooked by Palantine’s Secret Service detail and runs away.
Travis’ next mission is to rescue Iris from her pimp. This is Taxi Driver’s intense and unforgettable climax. The whole sequence is an orgy of violence. But it is not clean and stylized violence. People don’t just die neatly after one shot. They suffer bloody wounds, scream and curse, then return fire. Travis is shot twice. He drops his first gun then empties three others to kill the pimp and a couple of goons, and he still has to pull a knife on one of them. Killing is hard, dirty, dangerous work. People just don’t want to die. Then, when his enemies are dispatched, Travis puts a gun to his head and finds it empty. Another gun is empty as well. Finally, the police arrive, standing in the doorway, stunned at the carnage. Travis pantomimes blowing his brains out with his finger than passes out from blood loss.
At this point, we see the whole abattoir from above. Scorsese and Chapman actually tore the ceiling out of the apartment and hallway and built a track allowing the camera to retrace the path of the carnage from above, as if we are seeing it from the eyes of Travis’ departing spirit.
The only thing that saves the scene from being a pure exercise in nihilistic aestheticism is Bernard Herrmann’s music. To a funeral drum, we hear the dissonant trumpet motive associated with Travis’ bad thoughts amidst swirling harp arpeggios that suggest the dissolution of the flesh. Then we hear the romantic saxophone theme associated with Travis’ gallantry dissonantly played on trumpets and low brass. Darkness has finally consumed him.
The scene was so shocking that Scorsese had to desaturate the film stock, toning down the blood, to secure an R rather than an X rating.
In the epilogue, we learn that Travis survived. When he wakes up from a coma, he is hailed as a hero for saving Iris. The world didn’t know that Iris’ rescue was just the accidental side-effect of a failed suicide attempt.
Travis goes back to driving a cab. Does he want to live after all?
One night, Betsy gets into his cab. She has heard about Travis’ heroism, and her disgust has clearly been replaced with admiration. But after Travis drops off Betsy, he is suddenly agitated by something he sees in the rear-view mirror, accompanied by a “sting” from the orchestra that sounds uncanny because it is played backwards.
It’s only a matter of time before Travis Bickle goes off again.
It is interesting to read the critical responses to Taxi Driver. The movie is a masterpiece and deserved praise regardless of whether you think Travis is a hero or a psycho or a little bit of both. Oddly enough, though, Travis himself was regarded with a great deal of sympathy.
The seventies were the decade of the anti-hero. The organs of the culture were by then firmly in the hands of the hostile elite. Thus the instinct of the critics was to weaponize anti-heroes like Bickle against the establishment, meaning against mainstream America. There was surely some hand-rubbing on both coasts when Reagan was shot by a wannabe Travis Bickle.
Today, the hostile elite is fully in control. They are the establishment. They want to hold on to their power. Thus they live in terror of Travis Bickles like Brenton Tarrant and Dylann Roof. Hence the cultural organs pushed back hard against Todd Phillips’ Joker, which owes a great deal to both Taxi Driver and Scorsese’s later DeNiro vehicle The King of Comedy.
Now that the Great Replacement is turning millions of young white men into Travis Bickles, a sympathetic portrayal of a white man turning into a murderous vigilante was deemed bad art. Joker was a dud, but Taxi Driver remains as explosive as ever. Thus it is a classic of Right-wing cinema.
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