One of the greatest films of all time, Scorsese’s look at the disintegration of American culture following the Vietnam War won four Academy Awards in 1976.
Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle – electrifying. Twelve year old Jodie Foster as child prostitute Iris – astounding. Everything, and everyone in this film was so realistic, and so good, I could smell the sweat pouring off these guys – summer in New York City before everyone had air conditioning – fuhgeddaboutit!
I hadn’t seen this movie since it originally came out, so I’d forgotten how slowed-down it was in places. Not “Blade Runner” slow, but pretty damned close. This wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it did require the viewer to forget the last 40 years of movies and just go with it. Slow down a little, baby. It’s worth it.
Travis Bickle, our Vietnam vet, has chronic, pernicious insomnia (probably as a result of what he’d seen, and done in Vietnam, although it’s never spelled out). So he figures why fight it? He will work a night job, like drive a taxi. Genius. And it’s as a New York City cab driver that Travis gets to see the city’s, and by extension the country’s, dark and dirty underbelly – violence, crime, drugs, prostitution – it’s all there, all night, every night. The result is that it just feeds, and feeds, Travis’s growing rage.
I had my doubts about this assignment, because even though Travis Bickle does technically kill several guys, they are all bad guys! Travis is not your mother’s serial killer. He is instead a vigilante of the highest order – a good guy who knows all this shit is wrong – and he tries to right that wrong in the only way available to a small fry like him. (And no, the answer is NOT through a vigorous leaflet campaign, or by voting for the best candidate.)
Travis gets a gun; in fact he gets a LOT of guns. He practices, he poses – there’s his iconic “You lookin’ at me?” line – and just generally prepares for … what? With a problem as big as “What is wrong with America?” it’s hard to know where to point the gun. Travis flirts briefly with shooting a local politician, but then doesn’t. Although it’s never made clear, I figured Travis chickened out because the guy was too much of a cardboard cutout. There were bigger, more immediate threats to humanity right there in his own backyard. Enter Jodie Foster’s character, Iris. Travis had encountered her briefly when she got in the back of his cab one night, only to be pulled out of it a moment later by her pimp. The pimp, Sport – played by a dazzlingly young Harvey Keitel – tosses a $20 bill at Travis and tells him to “forget about it.”
But Travis can’t. He finds the pimp and pays to meet with Iris. Only instead of adding to her degradation, he tries to save her. He tells her this – prostitution – is “No kind of thing for a person to do.” I love that. He could have gone so many ways in his condemnation – you’re just a kid, prostitution is wrong, it’s a sin, blah blah blah – but instead, he looks at Iris and sees a person. Not an “unfortunate” or a “stupid kid” or a hopeless slut, but a person who should be living a real person’s life. Unable to convince her to leave the life she’s grown accustomed to, he returns later, only this time as an avenging angel.
The violent and bloody gunfight that ensues ends with a bunch of bad guys dead, a seriously wounded Travis Bickle, and a crying Iris huddled behind the couch. The police arrive and the newspapers make Travis a hero. Iris’s parents later write to him, thanking him for saving their daughter’s life – she’s back home with them in Pittsburgh and going to school. Travis even re-connects with a woman he tried to date earlier, Betsy, played by Cybil Shepherd.
There has been some speculation that the ending was all just a dying dream, and that Travis actually dies in the shoot-out. However, I think that Scorsese wanted to show us how whimsical fate can be, and just how thin the line between villain and hero can be sometimes. If Travis had been a little quicker with his gun and actually shot the politician instead, he would have been reviled as a murderer. Instead, he kills a pimp, a drug dealer, and a Mafioso – all to save a little girl’s life – and becomes a hero.
As far as I’m concerned, Travis Bickle did not fit the psycho stereotype we’ve come to know and love — no messed up childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse, and killing isn’t the only way he can find emotional satisfaction or sexual release — he was just a guy who got pushed to the edge, and who finally fell over it.