It Will Make You Squirm with Cognitive Dissonance.
Should we revere him or put him away forever?
American Film Institute’s Ranking: #47/100
Awards: Nominated for four winning none.
The purpose of this film is to be disgusted. Robert De Niro’s character makes us cringe. We recoil from the degrading behavior found on 42nd street. The ending makes us face uncomfortable choices. I enjoyed this film, even though it made me squirm through out. There is also a message that challenges how we view people and events: we place so much burden on outcomes and sometimes fail to look at the person themselves.
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is an ex-marine who is in New York City looking for work. He is lonely and depressed, no longer sleeping at night. He starts working as a taxi driver working the late night shifts to at least make his insomnia productive. This puts him in contact with the filth of late-night New York; he chauffeurs the prostitutes and derelicts around town. This disgusts Travis, and he begins a physical training regimen as well as working on weapon training with firearms.
Travis continues to become more deranged himself and views himself as some vigilante that will bring these people to justice — he’s going to clean up New York City! He has the inkling to start with targeting a presidential candidate, or maybe he’s going to help save a young child form a prostitution ring. We sit back appalled as we have to wait to see what havoc Travis will decide to wreck.
The film challenges us to consider how razor thin are interpretations are. Travis Bickle goes from being an easy to sympathize with loner to wierdo within frames. He then goes from being a potential infamous assassin to local hero in moments. This interpretation is only predicated on him not being able to draw his gun fast enough on presidential candidate Palantine — secret service chased him away before he could complete his evil deed.
Instead, he uses his delusional inner demons to commit rage on a prostitute ring to save an adolescent child. We cheer him more easily in this setting: we are excited for him to start clearing out filth without the constraints of the more formal channels of justice. The problem is Bickle is the same person: evil and deranged. He is no hero, but since his unconstrained psychosis happens to target other evil doers by chance, we turn a blind eye to the agent committing the act.
We quickly assign blame and agency to everything we do based on outcome. I remember driving with my friend in high school when we pulled out in front of another car to pass them at a stop sign — an adolescent game of chicken. How easily we could have been labeled as the reckless teenagers if an oncoming car had t-boned us? It was an immensely stupid act, but since no negative outcomes happened, we don’t have to carry any stigma for our actions.
We look at outcomes and work our way backwards. We assign positive virtues to those who have been successful, though this might have no correlation to their current, revered position. Like Bickle, that person may have committed several devious deeds that never came to fruition, so by serendipitous events, they never have to shoulder the burden.
This film is a classic and sometimes the outcome is just one part of the story.
Other People’s Takes:
- Finn Kane Reviews: “I absolutely loved this film, but I don’t know if it’s something that I would ever want to rewatch.”
- Nathan’s Insights: “Seeing Travis (Robert De Niro) descent into madness is like watching a car crash, you know you shouldn’t look but you can’t pull away.”
- After Credit Scorner: “That is, until Martin Scorsese turned spotlight on an unseen world in a movie that cemented Scorsese as a director to be reckoned with. Climb in, this is Taxi Driver.”