“Taxi Driver”: Travis Bickle’s psychology

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Screen Shot 2016-09-12 at 7.00.01 PM

Jeff Turner
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

Nobody ever wants to see themselves as a bad person, even when they’re doing bad things. Romanticism is the heroin of the narcissist. They begin, more and more, to drift into a cycle of self-destruction. Usually they have some sort of mental illness, but rarely will they have the self-awareness, or enough people who really, truly, love them to go seek help. Loneliness is the cancer that allows self-destruction to reach its peak.

Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro’s character in “Taxi Driver,” is often the pop culture shorthand to describe such individuals whom are on this death spiral. His distinctly crafted voice and detailed, elaborate character tics strike a stirring, psychological chord with many a person. Paul Schrader, “Taxi Driver” screenwriter, once said he used to get calls from people asking how he got down what it was like so accurately. This is a journey through life: and what Travis is going through is an aspect of that journey that nobody talks about; one they need desperately to cast to the wayside for any number of reasons. In “Taxi Driver,” this psychological profile is explored, and it gets pretty uncomfortable.

A walking contradiction.

This is a conversation that happens early in the film when Travis is on a date with Betsy (Cybil Shepherd). She says he reminds her of a Kris Kristofferson song, and emphasizes the line about ‘walking contradictions.’ Early on, it is challenging to see what she means, but by the film’s conclusion, it is all too apparent how relevant this is to Travis. He thinks he’s doing something nice for Betsy by taking her to a pornographic movie, but he just ends up getting dumped; and he thinks he is saving Iris, he thinks he is John Wayne when he walks into a brothel and murders the men running it.

One great thing that “Taxi Driver” director Martin Scorsese does near the climax of the film is when Travis arrives at the brothel, the film changes. It changes from the cleaner cinematography of the earlier scenes, to a much grittier, more exploitation film look. The scenes of murder in the brothel are disturbing enough on their own merit, but little change makes all of the difference.

Here is a man who would not take it anymore.

Travis Bickle is desperate to have people perceive him as a good man. He is also desperate to have that for himself. He casts off his loneliness as him being a person who is not like everyone else. He is on his own and the world is against him. Travis seeks out people that might be having his kind of struggle, but to no avail.

What he wants above all else is for everything to work out. And the tragedy is, he’s never going to get what it would take to make that happen.

The ending of the film reflects this, when Travis strikes the brothel in his rescue effort, he is wounded and falls unconscious. The film plays on as though he lived, but everything resolves itself too quickly. He gets everything he wants, Iris gets reunited with his family, but more importantly they revere Travis as a ‘hero.’ He and Betsy even share an amicable exchange. There is a thick undercurrent that things are not going to work out for Travis. Maybe it doesn’t happen today, or tomorrow, but it will all implode. It will collapse upon itself, like a tower of cards undone from within. Travis is his own murderer.

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