TAXI DRIVER feels like a dream, or more accurately the kind of insomniac haze between dreaming and wakefulness, with the way nearly every scene is so hyperfocused on Travis Bickle’s POV, the intermittent narration, the melancholy jazz score, the point-of-view sequences in the taxi Travis rides around the city like a portable metal coffin he’s already died in. The effect is so seductive that even though Travis clarifies his arrogance and bigotry quite early on in the film, with his hatred of all the types he sees as scum, that we feel inclined to connect with the loneliness in a big city.
As the film goes on, and Robert De Niro’s performance clarifies itself with the precision of mental illness, it becomes clearer that Travis isn’t just lonely and scarred, but someone actively sustaining the kind of dynamics he perceives as keeping himself on the edge of society – taking a date to a porno theatre can be understood as a genuine social mistake worthy of an empathetic cringe, but his supposed apolitical hatred of the people he chooses he maintain a schedule around driving at night becomes harder to brook as his directionless hatred peaks. He’s not born of counterculture, or any ideology, but of a need to direct his wealth of emotion into some sort of channel to make a worthy narrative out of his life.
The irony there is the arbitrariness of how his violence, how violence in general, is treated by society. His status as a Vietnam War vet underlines the murkiness of how violence is positioned in society, and how that position changes, but the arbitrary switch from ‘assassinating a presidential candidate’ to ‘assassinating a pimp’, and the marked difference in framing that provides for Travis (regardless of how little difference there was to him), emphasises how of course someone like Travis would be born out of somewhere so lunatic and inconsistent. Travis’ madonna/whore complex with the women in his life also shows this – while there’s very good reason to get a twelve-year-old prostitute out of that enormously abusive position, Travis approaches an adult political campaigner with the same diatribes about how he can supposedly recognise the ways in which her life is empty and hollow and how he’s the one to save her from it. It’s a good thing Travis got a child prostitute out of that situation, but he wanted to get a gainfully employed adult woman ‘out of her situation’ as well; he cares about channelling his impulses and crafting a narrative around himself and society more than the specifics of the situation.
The mastery of form at play in the film, in a way, shows how this kind of directionless hatred and contempt of society can splinter out in all sorts of arbitrary directions. The film defies easy classification, as it never gets didactic, and maintains Travis’ ‘apoliticism’ with great precision. But the film also clearly galvanised some into trying to mantle the role of Travis, not only in the literal case with John Hinckley Jr. attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan out of inspiration from the film, but in the way Travis Bickle joins the pantheon of Tyler Durden, The Joker, and so on, as supposed anarchic figures for young, directionless people to idolose – ‘they really get it, you know?’. That the irony of the film, the arbitrariness with which violence and and narrative are positioned in society, are lost on them, that’s just part of the point. Travis isn’t driving anywhere, but just back and forth and around, on and on, through a city – any city – that never sleeps. When a route lines up, it’s arbitrary. There’s no set direction, there’s just the road. Four and a half jujubes, and a Royal Crown Cola.