“He’s a walking contradiction / partly truth and partly fiction.”
In the iconic film Taxi Driver, Betsy intones these words from a Kris Kristofferson song as she gazes intently at Travis Bickle, a man who embodies everything Betsy previously deemed incompatible with the less-fair gender.
Travis: “I don’t like that man who works with you…not that I don’t like him. I think he’s silly. He doesn’t respect you.”
Betsy: “I have never met anyone quite like you.”
Travis is polite, yet assertive. He wants to protect Betsy from the evils of the urban sewer. In this particular scene, Travis comes across as a seventies version of the kind of leading man that populated late fifties and early sixties cinema. Betsy is accustomed to what Robert Bly later dubbed the “seventies soft male,” typified by Tom, her coworker at the offices of Senator Charles Palantine. No tension, good or bad, is possible between Betsy and Tom, just a kind of asexual blandness that holds no surprises. A stifling normalcy emanates from Tom. Above all, Tom’s interaction with Betsy is a species of at-the-office familiarity that contrasts with the less varnished, yet more chivalric Bickle. Could it be that Travis, a throwback to the Bogartesque post-war/pre-Beatles era, with his humble-yet-clean blue collar air and his welkin-eyed yet earnest naivete, is the answer to a desire so submerged within her psyche that Besty is scarcely aware of its power?
Perhaps, but the spell is soon broken. Travis takes Betsy out on a date. He takes the beautiful Betsy to a seedy movie house to see a Swedish “sex education” film. Travis’ innocence bars him from detecting anything dirty or offensive in the film.
However, innocence is rarely mere innocence, full stop; at least, not in the American mass culture hell that is Travis Bickle’s world. Here the antipodes of good and bad, high and low often meet, and since the American mass culture hell has replaced Gideon’s Bible with Freud, we are left wondering if Travis is testing Betsy, though without being entirely conscious of this deeper motive. It is possible that Travis’ “poor judgment” is a subconscious decision to separate himself from a safe, conventional future with Betsy so that he can fulfill his psychotic dream to “stand up” to the evil that has corrupted his world. Or perhaps Travis, who claims to hate the scum and filth of the modern city above all else, has traversed the sordid back alleys of Sodom so often that he has lost all context for knowing what evil and filth really are. Travis is left with a series of trite, hollow scenarios of “the good life,” of what clean people do: They go on dates, they court, etc. Yet, he cannot sustain a real relationship, cannot even get one off of the ground. Something is truly frightening about a man who seems so earnest, so genuine, but who sees no difference between a “dirty movie” and a romantic sunset.
Travis’ immersion in the American mass culture hell is thorough; thus his conviction that this culture must be destroyed, and his total commitment to end it through calculated violence. Travis is, in a sense, beyond good and evil, for he has replaced the life of the polis—the city, the place of good and evil society, of good and evil communion—with the simple equation city = evil, or even, citizen = evil. But, one wonders: Is not Travis Bickle himself a citizen?
Is this the true meaning of the iconic image of Robert DeNiro as Travis making a gun with his bloody fingers and figuratively blowing off his own head?
And yet, we—as viewers—surely cannot abide comfortably in such an explanation. After all, Travis does some good along the way. He kills Sport, a despicable man who pimps out twelve-year-old Iris until Travis rescues her. As I reflect on the foregoing sentence, though, I wonder whether “rescues” is the proper word, for it is just as likely that Iris’ plight is only another of Travis’ empty life scenarios, a convenient real life “plot device” that gives our protagonist an excuse to kill. We as viewers doubtless find it creepy that Travis could just as easily have been another Lee Harvey Oswald, had he found the opportunity to carry out his planned assassination of Senator Palantine. There is a parallel between the two murders—one not carried out (Palantine), and one carried out (Sport)–that suggests their moral equivalence for Travis. We view the film and we wonder whether the world at large is the cesspool that Travis takes it to be, and thus we wonder whether Travis Bickle is good, evil, or neither.