Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), age 26, is Taxi Driver’s lonely, alienated “hero.” Yes, he’s a Vietnam War vet, ex-marine, and likely has his share of PTSD. But, his problems stem from something much deeper than war trauma. He must have suffered some kind of childhood trauma, to be sure. He wouldn’t be so troubled if he hadn’t. His letter to his parents is dutiful, secretive, and distant. He wants something, though; he wants Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), he’s obsessed with her beauty. But, he has no idea what a woman wants or how to date, let alone to have a relationship with anyone, even his fellow taxi drivers.
He can’t sleep. So he drives. And, drives. And, when he’s not driving, he’s frequenting XXX-rated movie theaters; his only form of entertainment. He’s disconnected. When he makes a real faux pas with Betsy, he must redeem himself and save the world of women from scum. What is that scum? That’s the question.
The Scum Travis Wants To Wash Away
Travis sees it all. He doesn’t discriminate – between passengers or parts of the city he travels. All elements, low life and high, come across his path or he, across theirs. He watches; doesn’t like what he sees: “All the animals come out at night, the sicko’s, whores, and junkies. Someone should come and wash all the scum off the street.”
But, we’ll see that Travis lives in scum too. He not only travels the seedy boulevards of life in his taxi. But, also inside himself. After driving the city at night, he slips quietly into a seat at an Adult movie theater after buying candy and coca-cola. But, this watching doesn’t even give him perverse pleasure. His mind is shut down and dark.
What lives in that darkness? What has he already tried to wash away? His emotional needs. He hates them. And, this makes him a loner. Because we soon find out, he’s been coldly turned away from, one too many times. To him, his needs are just as much “scum” as the displaced needs of whores, pimps, and junkies.
Travis keeps his distance from his fellow taxi drivers. Tries to look like he needs nothing and doesn’t care. Until he desperately talks to Wizard (Peter Boyle) when his “bad ideas” are too much. Wizard really isn’t much help at all. No one understands. He can’t connect. Alienated, that’s the world Travis lives in. And, it’s more than PTSD.
He must have disconnected long ago. Because Travis knows nothing about pop culture, proper movies, women, or what makes him tick. Likely, he was very hurt as a child. Until he sees Betsy, he doesn’t seem to have much desire at all. Hasn’t let himself. But, suddenly his own displaced needs storm into an obsession.
Obsession With Betsy
“I first saw her at the Campaign Headquarters, wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel.” The headquarters are Presidential hopeful, Senator Charles Palatine’s (Leonard Harris). Betsy and Tom (Albert Brooks) are his key campaign coordinators and right-hand workers. And, they seem to have a thing for each other.
Travis, the voyeur that he is, watches from his cab, parked outside the headquarters. This alarms Betsy. Tom runs out and chases him away. But, Travis won’t be deterred and Tom’s presence presents a greater challenge. He dresses up, strides right in, offers to volunteer; only for her.
Why? “Because I think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” For her own reasons (her own loneliness, as Travis the arm-chair-taxi-psychoanalyst, later proposes?), is taken with him and his bold assertions. Maybe she has her own insecurities. She surprisingly agrees to meet him for coffee and a later date.
He proceeds to tell her his observations of her – yet, really his projections of all he can’t accept in himself: “I watch you. I see people around you, but you’re lonely. Not a happy person. You need something. Maybe a friend.” That’s Travis. He’s the one that needs a friend. As much as he’d like to believe he needs nothing at all.
“You going to be my friend?” Betsy asks seductively and tells him she has a break at 4 PM. They sit at a coffee shop: “I had black coffee, apple pie with a slice of melted yellow cheese. She had coffee and fruit salad when she could have had anything she wanted.” He’s the big man.
He wants her to want him. For all Travis’ unworldliness, he has a fragile self-protective arrogance. Until it is soon “shot down.”
Blowing His Chances At “Love”
The more Travis talks to Betsy, the more disturbed we see his obsessive fantasy is:
“You like the guy you work with? I could tell there was no connection. When I walked in there was something between us, an impulse we both were following that gave me the right to talk to you. Otherwise, I would never have had the courage.” Yes, Travis’ arrogance covers deep insecurity.
But, Betsy looks hypnotized. When he asks her if she felt it too, she says: “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like you. You remind me of Kris Kristofferson, ‘piece of truth, piece of fiction, a walking contradiction.” He has no idea who this Kris Kristofferson is.
Travis doesn’t know much about most things. Not politics or Palatine. Has nothing in common with Betsy. His mind is lost in disturbed preoccupations. When Palatine gets into his taxi and asks him what bothers him most, Travis goes off: “Clean up this city. It’s a sewer.” Can he count on Palatine? No. Travis can’t count on anyone.
And, Betsy can’t count on him. Travis’s mind is very split. He tries to be a good guy, but he has a sleazy side born out of his desperate alienated deprivation. The XXX-rated “dirty” movie theater? That’s where he takes her on their date. When Betsy walks out, deeply offended, he’s dumbfounded:
“What?! I see a lot of couples coming here. Wait, can’t we talk?” As quickly as “the angel” entered his life, Betsy’s gone. Another rejection Travis can’t take.
Childhood Wounds Triggered
Travis’ panic doesn’t come out of just anywhere. Nor does obsessive need. Her disappearance triggers an old childhood trauma. It can’t be anything else. “Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Bars and cars and everywhere. There’s no escape.”
He calls and calls. Pleads with Betsy to have dinner or coffee. Sends her flowers. Bouquets of returned flowers pile up in his house; dead. He tries to apologize: “I didn’t know that was the way you felt.” He’s in torment: “The smell of flowers made me sick. Headaches got worse. I think I got stomach cancer.”
Travis can’t take her refusals. He storms into headquarters, enraged: “Why won’t you answer my phone calls? You’re going to die in hell like the rest of them.” Clearly, this isn’t his first humiliation: “I realize now she’s just like the others, cold and distant.”
Who are the others? Who was the first? It must be his mother. We later hear his dutiful, distant letter to his parents. This isn’t a man that feels loved. Past rejections collide into a rage. Yes, he’ll try his best once again to get rid of his scummy and desperate needs. Just like Betsy got rid of him.
His next passenger gives him a “bad” idea. A cuckolded man (Martin Scorsese) watches his wife in another man’s window: “I’m going to kill him, what do you think about that? Ever see what (a 44 magnum) will do to a woman’s face; a woman’s pussy? You must think I’m pretty sick?”
Travis says nothing; a part of him is just as sick. Lovesick. Sickened by his ruined chance with a woman like Betsy. Yes, an idea of power is planted in his mind. Humiliation is awful to live with. So is unrequited love. Not to mention, self-hate.
Target Practice For Self-Redemption
Travis tells Wizard, the oldest of his group of taxi drivers: “I want to go out and do something. I have some bad ideas in my head.” What are those bad ideas? Bad thoughts about himself? Self-hate that leads to thoughts of murder? And, who is it he’d like to kill? He takes Doughboy (Harry Northup) up, on the suggestion of a gun.
But, he doesn’t just get one gun. He buys four. And, it’s not for Doughboy’s original idea of self-protection. (Or maybe it sort of is. A man has his pride.) Travis spends days and nights sitting in his apartment holding, caressing his guns. At target practice. Becoming a city desperado.
He works out. “Gotta get in shape. Every muscle must be tight. This idea has been growing in my mind for some time. All the King’s men can’t put it back together again.” He’s broken. Practices drawing his gun fast. Determined to do something.
He watches TV with his gun. A couple, dancing. A man fighting with a woman who clearly loves someone else. Travis kicks the TV. Still holding his gun, head in his hands, rocking himself and crying: “Listen. Here’s a man that couldn’t take it anymore. Someone who stood up against the scum …”
He writes a sad letter to his estranged parents, lying that he’s been seeing a girl named Betsy for a few months. They’d be proud. So, who’s the scum? Betsy? The cold women who’ve shunned him? Or Travis, himself, for his own humiliating blunder? We know he’s trying to toughen up against self-hate. Maybe saving Iris will redeem him.
Saving Iris (& Travis’ Young Self)
There’s still the mystery of what he’s training for with his target practices, workouts, and gun maneuvers. But, Travis gets it in his head to save Iris (Jodie Foster), a fourteen-year-old runaway hooker under the spell of Sport (Harvey Keitel) her “lover-pimp.” She jumped in Travis’s cab once and wanted to getaway. But, Sport pulled her out.
We might think about Iris as Travis’s innocent, young, self that took a wrong turn, had some very hurtful experiences, went to war, and came back jaded. With a family he didn’t want to be with; didn’t go home to; who were distant and uninviting; without love. If we listen to Iris’s father’s voice at the end of the film; we understand Iris’s escape.
Iris is certainly at war inside; young and alone and scared. But, fighting it – and fiercely independent for her own reasons. Maybe not so dissimilar to Travis’ lonely alienation. So, when she, again, literally crosses his path (Travis almost hits her), he seizes the opportunity. Travis decides to save her.
Can he redeem himself? In his mind? To Betsy? We already know he’s quite confused in his head; misguided about life and how to get things done. And, trauma upon trauma (childhood and the war) has set off a lot of buried rage. He doesn’t have any more reasonable sense of the rules of life than Iris does.
He tries to talk sense into her. Tells her to go back to her family, she doesn’t belong on the streets with the likes of Sport: “You’re a young girl. You should be going to school. Going out with boys.” The innocent life Travis wishes he had. Maybe never did. When Iris won’t listen and goes back to Sport, Travis takes matters into his own hands.
Saving The City From Scum
Yes, he tries hard to convince Iris to leave Sport: “You can’t let him do that to other girls, least you. He’s the worst fucking scum on the earth.” Travis’ knows something about treating girls wrong (taking Betsy to his Adult theater haunt). But he did it without conscious intention to hurt her. He wants to save his pride.
He tried to prove he was a better man than Tom. Now, he’ll be a better man than Sport. He wants nothing from Iris. He’ll give her the money to go home: “I don’t have anything better to do with it.” Now, that he thinks Iris is saved, he has “important government business to take care of.”
Perhaps he intended to assassinate Palatine and was deterred. But, that’s not where he ends up. Sport seduces Iris back in, whispering all the sweet nothings her parents never gave her, I’m quite sure: “Come to me, baby. Let me hold you.” Travis didn’t get this either.
While Travis is at his last violent target practice, preparing for war, Travis polishes his boots. Burns all the dying flowers he got for Betsy. Leaves the money for Iris (not knowing she’s already back in Sport’s arms and power), and cuts his hair into a Mohawk. “My whole life points in one direction.” Guns hidden in pant legs. Army jacket. Sunglasses. His Mohawk.
Chased away from a Palatine rally, he madly drives his taxi across city streets and ends up standing right in front of Sport, shooting him point-blank. Iris is with a john in the next building. Travis shoots the proprietor. Who shoots back at Travis. Bloodied, Travis bursts into Iris’ room, aims at the john, falling onto the couch next to a terrified Iris.
Travis Is A Hero. Reality or Grandiose Fantasy?
When the police arrive, Travis has a crazed and happy look on his face. Proud of his accomplishments, he points his fingers at his head, gun-like: “Pow, Pow,” as if intends to (or metaphorically did) just kill himself. He’s singlehandedly killed off the scum of the city and saved Iris. Iris will now go home.
But, what was the real point of his rampage? To kill off any left-over scummy needs, guilt, and self-hate inside Travis Bickle. Is he dying? Dead? Taken to jail? No. He’s taken to the hospital. Not the crazed murderer he actually is. He’s become the city’s (and Iris’ parents) revered “Hero.” Is this reality? Or Travis’ grandiose fantasy? We’ll never know.
But, in Travis’ mind, he’s better than Tom, better than Palatine (who dropped the ball on washing away the scum.) And, Betsy too now admires Travis for the “hero he is.” She’s his last passenger in Taxi Driver. As he lets her out, he says goodbye with a flourish; as if he could care less. Leaving her behind, and pining, as she once left him.
*This piece is dedicated to my dear friend, actor and poet Harry Northup. Who played Doughboy in this film.