Directed by: Martin Scorsese Written by: Paul Schrader
My trajectory of backward film watching continues. Having watched The King of Comedy to study its influence on Joker, I inevitably decided to give Taxi Driver a try. The film has an interesting narrative structure. While its not non-linear or abstract, Taxi Driver doesn’t introduce its antagonist (Harvey Keitel) or secondary protagonist (Jodie Foster) until quite late in its runtime. As a result, a degree of a realism is granted to the bizarre and twisted tale of Travis Bickle. His life cannot be reduced to one narrative arc, but instead is a series of episodes that add up to something.
Taxi Driver takes its time in telling viewers what we should think of Bickle. In fact, what exactly we are to think of this anti-hero (and the ideology of his creators) is never really clarified. We are introduced to 26-year-old Travis as he enters the taxi business. His motivation for doing so, other than presumably a need for cash, is that he needs a distraction to keep his frequently angry imagination distracted.
The film’s plot then seems to take shape as Travis attempts to start a relationship with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine’s (Leonard Harris) presidential campaign . Travis follows Betsy before even meeting her and decides she needs saving from her mundane work under the watch of a campaign official named Tom (Albert Brooks). Betsy agrees to go on a date with Travis, and the relationship appears to be going in a positive direction. Then, however, Travis takes Betty to see a pornographic movie on a subsequent date and, to put it mildly, she loses interest.
As is the case with the Joker/King of Comedy comparison, the contrast between Joker and Taxi Driver can best be described as centreing around ambiguity. Despite having broadly leftist politics, Joker was prejudged and still gets labelled by some as a white-male-rage movie. Taxi Driver, ironically, fits that bill far better than Joker, even as some critics decry Joker as a poor imitation of Taxi Driver. But while the best way to defend Joker is to argue that its critics have simply interpreted it incorrectly, the best defence of Taxi Driver is to argue that there’s value to its nihilism.
Taxi Driver is a film that forces viewers to engage with the ambiguity of the moral agency of individuals. It is both possible to see Travis’s initial attempts to woo Betsy as inappropriate and presumptuous, while acknowledging that he is nonetheless right about her unhappy working relationship with Tom. Similarly, one can be disturbed by Travis’s choice of second-date movie , while also acknowledging that the choice was not an act of insensitivity, but a reflection of his strong alienation from social normalcy.
Taxi Driver’s ambiguity extends beyond the realm of good vs bad, and into the realm of politics. While I like the film, and largely trust the intent of the artists behind it, part of me worried that its anti-New York rhetoric was in line with the values of that era: values that would bring about Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Travis develops a dislike for Senator Palantine. Is this a political feeling on Travis’s part, or is it solely tied to his feelings for Betsy? We’re never given a reliable answer. And furthermore, what kind of politician even is Palantine? Joker’s politician, Thomas Wayne, is obviously a proto-Michael Bloomberg. Palantine, on the other hand, could be any Democrat from Ed Koch to Bernie Sanders. I would argue the best interpretation is that Palantine falls somewhere in the bland middle of that spectrum (a blandness highlighted in a scene where Tom argues that their campaign’s slogan is “We Are the People,” instead of “We are the People”). I say this because Travis feels disdain for society as a whole, and as such, his enemy would be best embodied by an arrogant, but generic politician. That said, I couldn’t really put my finger on what kind of politician Palantine was meant to be, let alone to what degree Schrader, Scorsese, etc were “on his side.”
Joker is the origin story of a villain. It is a tale that speaks to how villainy emerged from a largely gentle soul. Taxi Driver is almost Joker’s opposite. When the film starts Travis may not be a villain (in fact his hatred for villains is one of his motives), but one woulds be remiss to call him a gentle soul. He is cynical, manipulative and a tough-on-crime type. Through its unusual narrative structure, Travis finds his way into the protagonist’s seat. Both Joker and Taxi Driver thus end up invoking the spirit of the Phil Ochs song “There But for Fortune.”
Joker, of course, is truer to the song’s overall message: that social oppression can bring out the worst in us and cause cycles of suffering. But Taxi Driver catches another of the song’s themes: that life is a lottery. Travis is a morally gray character: contemporary viewers could describe him as being on the incel spectrum. But fortune strikes and the brighter side of Travis’ moral compass comes to guide him when it matters most.
Joker’s message is one that we can (sort of) act upon: care for the downtrodden and we’ll have a more peaceful society. Taxi Driver doesn’t really offer a moral: only an observation. Good and evil can stem from the same ambiguous agent, and which one ends up mattering is entirely unpredictable.