“You know what you remind me of? That song by... Kris Kristofferson.” Betsy pauses, searching her memory for the lyrics. “He’s a… he’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.”
Travis studies her for a moment, perplexed. “I’m no pusher. I never have pushed.”
“No,” Betsy chuckles. “Just the part about the contradictions. You are that.”
Betsy doesn’t know how right she is. Travis’ words, his actions, his very behavior weave a tangled web, making his true motives difficult to discern.
He condemns the “animals” that walk the streets at night, but in the same breath boasts, “I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ‘em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”
He calls himself “God’s lonely man,” yet surrounds himself with people who seem intent on befriending him—Charlie T. jokingly nicknames him “Killer,” Dough-Boy eagerly hooks him up with his arms dealer, and Wizard is quick to offer him (admittedly poor) advice.
He seems disinterested in the physical act of sex—especially when Iris comes on to him—yet he frequents porno theaters, and even takes Betsy to one for their (disastrous) second date.
He despises the “scum” of New York—the “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies”—yet his interactions with Sport are far less strained than his aloof conversations with his fellow cabbies. Sport recognizes him as an outsider, mistaking him for an undercover policeman, but treats him as an equal, an old friend—he even calls him “Cowboy,” endlessly amused by the notion of a vice cop coming to him for some action; Travis, for his part, adopts the “street” vernacular without much trouble, as though he spent his whole life on that stoop.
He meticulously plots the assassination of Palentine down to the last detail—familiarizing himself with the senator’s movements, memorizing the faces of security personnel—but on the appointed day, he arrives at the political rally pale, emaciated, and Mohawk’d. To quote Schrader’s script, “TRAVIS looks like the most suspicious human being alive.”
These conflicting character traits lead me to a single, inescapable conclusion: Travis suffers not from a sense of loneliness, but rather from a sense of invisibility; he desires not love/friendship/companionship, but rather attention—he desperately wants (needs) somebody (anybody) to notice that he exists. And why shouldn’t Travis feel entitled to a bit of recognition? Those scars across his back testify to the terrible violence he witnessed and perpetrated and endured in Vietnam.
Or do they? Travis blatantly lies about his occupation on multiple occasions. “I’m doing something for the government,” he tells Iris over a late breakfast. “The cab thing is just part time.” In an anniversary card to his own parents, he writes, “I’m sorry again I cannot send you my address like I promised last year, but the sensitive nature of my work for the government demands utmost secrecy.” Should we, the viewers, count ourselves among the deceived? Could that King Kong Company patch on his jacket be nothing more than another lie, another desperate attempt to escape the smothering anonymity of his urban existence?
Honestly, I can’t say for sure. Taxi Driver is a Rorschach test; it’s meaning changes every time I view it. This ambiguity is the film’s greatest strength, its beauty—the quality that makes it so endlessly re-watchable.
[Originally written February 19, 2012.]