For most, Taxi Driver is summed up by one of the most famous lines in cinema: “You talking to me?” Conveying masculinity and bravado, it readies angry men for battle. But it is misleading. It is an act, a façade. The truth is found in the line that follows: “Well, I’m the only one here.”
Both were ad-libbed by Robert De Niro — the actor who gave Travis Bickle flesh and blood 39 years ago — and both portray a violent psychotic as true then as it is today. Taxi Driver may take place on the mean streets of pre-Giuliani New York, but it is not the locale that makes Taxi Driver relevant; it’s Travis.
Travis, a returning Vietnam Vet with voices in his head and hatred in his heart, takes a job driving a cab at night, hoping to drown out the demons. It doesn’t. Travis tries to express these thoughts, but he can’t. When he tries to talk about it with a co-worker, he barely manages, “I got some bad ideas in my head.” Alone, Travis fills notebook after notebook with fragmented thoughts of hatred, racism, manifestos, confusions and fears, but in the presence of another human being, eight words are the best he can do.
Taxi Driver isn’t a celebration; it’s an exorcism. Watching it isn’t always a pleasant experience, but it is a necessary one. For writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver was a chance to shine a light on their own personal demons.
If only Travis could have done the same. Instead, the idea of true force builds in his mind, and the only expression he is left with is violence. In Schrader’s original screenplay, Travis was to massacre a group of black men, but race relations in New York were tense and Schrader and Scorsese were afraid the movie would incite riots. Instead, they cast Harvey Keitel as a pimp, stuck a feather in his hat — referencing Scar from The Searchers, one of the models for the movie — and let a couple of Italian pimps be Travis’s target. It worked and Taxi Driver did not incite any race riots. But, it did compel John Hinckley, Jr. to try and assassinate President Reagan. Movies can harm. They can even kill.
They can also illuminate. They throw light into the darkest corners of the psyche, evaporating the shadows to see where the boogeyman lives. Travis is a sick and lonely man, and maybe he was born sick. But a series of events isolated him further, and he struck back the only way he knew how. His acts are monstrous, but he is no monster. Taxi Driver understands that. It treats Travis with the same humanity and compassion as it would any character.
Watch Taxi Driver more than once, and that becomes clear. Watch it enough times, and you’ll see that it’s not about Travis Bickel; but it’s actually about Dylann Roof, James Holmes, Elliot Rodger, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, etc.
Taxi Driver allows us to understand these men and we need to understand if we are going to help them. If we don’t, they will terrorize us forever.