In this column, I go back to my roots with The American Film Institute’s Top 100 Lists, a good place to start for those interested in Classic Hollywood films. It’s in concurrence with #AFIMovieClub and the 10th anniversary of becoming a classic movie fan myself. Thanks for reading.
The first time I ever saw Taxi Driver — owing partially to AFI’s list of heroes and villains and my own naivete at the time — I think I legitimately did think of Travis Bickle as a villain. At least he was a volatile human being I didn’t know what to do with. He unnerved me in a sense. Hence, villainy. It makes it a lot easier to categorize him in such a way because it makes it unnecessary to consider his character in more complicated terms.
However, over subsequent viewings and as I’ve grown as a person, my thoughts on Travis have evolved even a little bit. Sure, there still is the same knee-jerk reaction to his brand of vigilantism that goes to the extreme. And yet I look at him, his genuine desire to clean up the revolting streets, his sense of compulsion to protect Jodie Foster’s character — how do you come to terms with him?
These are not bad desires per se, but they get twisted over the course of the movie. By the time of his dream-like ascension, the angst of this cabbie and Vietnam vet has taken him off the proverbial deep-end.
The final scenes of Taxi Driver — even the ones leading up to the climax — and following thereafter, do not make me angry at Travis. On the contrary, I pity him and question what kind of world we live where someone can come to believe that they are a hero in their little world of self-delusion. And yet it doesn’t end simply there. Something more exists. For even the briefest of moments I think and question: Is there someone or something like Travis Bickle inside myself?
After all, if he started from a place of genuine altruism, what about me? I can be, at times, petty and self-serving on my worst days (or even some of my better ones). You never set out to be a villain. Sometimes it just happens due to the proclivities of human nature and how we are wired.
So, on a good day is Travis a hero and on a bad day, a villain? I’m not sure if it’s as easy as that. But I would like to slightly push back against the villain title. I think what drew Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro toward the character was this inherent sense of the everyman ambiguity.
He could be any of us. The character is a barometer of the times and a culture coming to terms with the times. Even as De Niro leers into the mirror gruffly yelling, “You talking to me?” he’s not just calling out to his own reflection. We are all in his place. It’s yet to be known how we respond. That’s what makes it one of the most memorable characterizations of the 1970s. As much as I don’t want to admit it, Travis spells out the best and worst about us.