Taxi Driver at 40: Travis Bickle and the New Age of Vigilantism

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is an Academy Award-winning masterpiece of modern cinema. The neo-noir, brutally violent crime drama, is set in the gritty scenery of 1970s New York City. It revolves around Travis Bickle, the titular taxi driver played by Robert De Niro.

Bickle is a depressed and dysfunctional loner who takes on the job of a moonlighting taxi driver in an effort to distract himself from chronic insomnia. Bickle is an army veteran, so the character is likely a subtle criticism of an America that left thousands of veterans languishing in mental illness from Vietnam.

Within his internalised fantasy, Bickle harbours resentment of the socially decaying city surrounding him. In his job he is willing to travel to any part of the city and transport any customer - encountering seediness, destitution and criminality. Like a patrolman touring the battlefield, the delusional Bickle envisions himself as a cleanser of “scum” and a moral exemplar within the hostile arena he is confined to.

Bickle’s sanity unravels when he encounters a woman called Betsy, a campaign volunteer for US presidential candidate Charles Palentine. He stalks Betsy in his taxi, and despite him being a creep, she agrees to date thanks to Bickle’s good looks and superficial charm.

On realising that Bickle’s fixation is sexually perverted, she rejects his advances. To Bickle this scenario encapsulates both his personal destitution, and his hatred of the social breakdown presided over by a corrupt political class, which causes his vigilantism to manifest into reality.

Armed to the teeth, Bickle attempts to assassinate Palentine. When unsuccessful he instead decides to kill two pimps who are selling a child prostitute runaway, Iris (played by a young Jodie Foster) who Bickle tries to save by giving her all of his earnings to return home. A gruesomely realistic firefight is Bickle’s suicide mission, but running out ammunition he is left in a pool of blood as the police arrive.

The film ends with the voice of the girl’s father thanking Bickle for saving his daughter, with newspaper clippings storying the shootings adorning Bickle’s wall. Bickle has miraculously survived his injuries and has returned to taxi driving, and the film ends with him giving Betsy a ride. The scene is too good to be true, clearly portraying Bickle’s dying wish to be the conquering hero.

The New York City of the 21st century is vastly removed from the often romanticised one of the 70s

Like Rorschach in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Bickle is an archetypal antihero. He is a prejudiced and deranged man, but in his efforts to help Iris, he also exhibits a glimmer of compassion towards a broken society - just one morally twisted by his mental disturbance.

It is as if he is a “Bizzaro World” version of Winston Smith from George Orwell’s 1984, who joins the vanguard against the repression of Big Brother. Only in Bickle’s case, he is rebelling within his own self-aggrandising worldview.

In the film’s iconic scene, where Bickle points a gun at his own reflection and asks “Are you talking to me?” he demands of himself: “You make the move…who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” The self-loathing antagonism and confusion he directs towards himself unmasks his desperate alienation.

The New York City of the 21st century is vastly removed from the often romanticised one of the 70s, which gave birth to punk. Today it is a far more sanitised, gentrified, tourist-friendly metropolis: but still one of the epicentres of American and global society. Therefore it has served as a venue for nationwide, and international, political unrest.

It has held protests by Black Lives Matter movement outraged with the killing of people of colour by police, regularly criticised for racial discrimination in the city, not being held to account.

Previously, in 2011, Occupy Wall Street demonstrated outrage towards the greed and ruthlessness that triggered the Great Recession, in turn inspiring anti-austerity movements globally, while the Arab Spring overthrew long-lasting dictatorships.

In Taxi Driver, the fourth-wall of the cinema was Bickle’s platform to express dissidence from isolation - whereas we have social networks to facilitate a shared experience. This is having a direct influence on political and media discourse - a form of democratisation without precedence and having an undeniable impact resulting in social change.

Our newfound vigilantism - harnessing the digital age - is a phenomenon that is increasingly vital to obstructing injustice

OWS and the Arab Spring protests were orchestrated through social networks, while BLM has utilised them to circulate the names - and filmed slayings - of the victims they are speaking out for.

Another example of such civilian journalism is the podcast Serial, each series of which focuses on cold criminal cases, deconstructing and exhibiting the evidence to the public in an effort to solve them.

Adnan Syed, the subject of the first Serial who was convicted of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, was recently granted a retrial - which can be directly attributed to the podcast’s role in highlighting his case, and investigating lines of inquiry that the authorities failed to.

In an extraordinary example of vigilantism, human rights activist John Prendergast and actor George Clooney founded the Satellite Sentential Project - supported by multinational technology firms like Google – which advocates using satellite photography to document and obstruct human rights abuses such as genocide and war crimes; which indicates a dereliction of duty by authorities like the United Nations.

Our newfound vigilantism - harnessing the digital age - is a phenomenon that is increasingly vital to obstructing injustice and ensuring that those in power are held to account.

This is a vigilantism demanding radical change to systematic failures - in governments, economies, justice systems, law enforcements and even global authorities, and the need for their reform towards a more just and civilised order of things.

Perhaps this new hope could motivate Travis Bickle to turn over his guns and find an answer to the burning question: do you feel lucky?

More about the author

About the author

Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.

Follow Jacob on Twitter.

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