There are plenty of good films/TV shows coming out, so I don’t want to sound like some crotchety, old nostalgia hound. Still, sometimes it pays to watch ’70s-90s films, as they often carried a gritty realism. For example, check out Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver some time, if you haven’t already. You might quickly think,”Woah, this is definitely from another era!” It sure is, and that’s part of what makes it great. Frankly, none of the characters are likable. The main character, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a deranged, misanthropic ex-soldier who becomes obsessed with a girl (Cybill Shepherd), gets rejected by her, then plans violent revenge.
Yet, at the same time, Travis Bickle is not particularly evil. In fact, there are signs that he’s just an average guy. He may have a few bad (or terrible) ideas in his head, but the tide can easily shift and make him look like a public hero. He’s a complex character, not tailor-made for modern pop culture’s preening sensibilities.
Ironically, Taxi Driver is a great film precisely because it’s offensive, unsettling. The moral ambiguity is what makes it impactful, and real. There are still films and TV shows like Taxi Driver around today, but it seems like a lot of these story approaches will go away, in favor of safe, predictable outcomes and clear boundaries between good and evil. In other words, moral ambiguity will be increasingly frowned upon, because the ideas will simply be too complex for some viewers to understand.
But is Taxi Driver really that offensive, or is it merely realistic? To me it merely seeks to elaborate the world of its main character, to approximate explaining it. You are essentially there with Travis, to see what he sees, know what he knows, and why. You might not agree with all of it (in fact, you definitely shouldn’t), but you’ll come shockingly close to understanding it. That is the power of Taxi Driver. Sure, one can talk about the strengths of De Niro’s performance, but even a lesser actor could have still worked, as the story’s realism is precisely the main driving force.
Want to know how realistic this film is? Even the guy (Harvey Keitel) who pimps out an underaged girl, Iris (Jodie Foster), comes off looking less villainous than Travis, who exacts justice on him through brutal violence. Yes, Keitel’s character is a scumbag, and it would be difficult to defend him. However, in the process of exacting justice on the pimp, Travis clearly traumatizes Iris further, and sets a media standard for accepting brutal violence as a form of instant justice!
The story is not so simple as “He’s a bad guy! Get him, Travis!” At the same time, we likely understand why Travis did what he did, and the complex reasons why. Whether a burgeoning political assassin or the savior of a child prostitute, Travis Bickle is both a villain and a hero (or an “anti-hero,” to use a common expression). His idea of justice is not entirely just.
What if Every Man Acted Like Travis Bickle?
After watching Taxi Driver, this is perhaps an important question, especially if you read comments on true crime videos on Youtube. There are tons of people out there who advocate for retaliatory violence, whether for serial killers, one-off murders or child molesters. Much like with Travis Bickle, one can understand these views.
However, what if everyone got their wish? What if every drug dealer was executed, or everyone got the maximum sentence for a violent crime? What if everyone who ever did something creepy was incarcerated or simply killed? Would the world suddenly become a peaceful paradise? Personally, it sounds more like a never-ending hellscape to me. These aren’t questions for any single person to answer. However, Taxi Driver ought to inspire such questions as a long-lingering afterthought, at least to viewers who really get the layered dimensions of Mr. Bickle. Still, one could understand Taxi Driver coming equipped with a “Do not try this at home” warning.
What are your thoughts on Travis Bickle and Taxi Driver? Let us know in the comments!