Revisiting Taxi Driver in the Age of the Mass Shooter
"You talkin' to me?"
A young man with a gun in his hand enters a building. Already, he has shot the man at the door, and before he is finished, lying in a pool of his own blood, he will have wasted two more.
This sounds like a news item from yesterday or today, but it’s also the ending of Taxi Driver. It might seem strange that a 1976 Martin Scorsese film about a deranged cab operator could gain social relevance more than 40 years later. But today, as public acts of mass violence, many politically motivated, are becoming increasingly frequent throughout Europe and North America, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) can be seen as a prototype for today’s lone gunmen.
We hear echoes of their testimonies and manifestos, even of white nationalist Richard Spencer’s cool-headed racial purity screeds, in Travis’ voiceover. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets,” he writes in his diary. Today's perpetrators of mass violence, like Travis, are solitary and anonymous. They too are filled with an indiscriminate hatred for society. And they too see their carnage as a righteous mission.
When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold took photos and videos of themselves with the weapons they would wield at Columbine High School, was it simply their version of “You talkin’ to me?” That scene, the most famous in the film, is held up as the ultimate in tough-guy bravado. But it’s frequently taken out of context. Rather than actually confront someone, Travis rehearses the line to himself in a mirror while playing with his guns as if they were toys. He’s pathetic and strange, but the undercurrent of danger is still present.
Taxi Driver is DeNiro at his best. The odd, subdued intensity he gives Travis is bewitching, especially when he strolls into an office to ask Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a stunning blond campaign worker, for coffee. “I think you’re a lonely person,” he says. “I saw in your eyes, and I saw by the way that you carried yourself that you’re not a happy person.” It’s an inexplicably direct come-on, but it works for a time. Later, after she’s rejected him, comes the film’s most important shot: as Travis calls her on a pay phone, Scorsese pans the camera right, showing us an empty hallway. The cabbie saunters back into frame and out the door, and we realize that the lonely person he spoke of in the campaign office was himself.
But there is one critical difference between Travis and real-life shooters. The film, as it molds Travis into a killer, asks us to understand, even empathize with him. His motivations are not as clear as Dylann Roof’s racism or the Pulse nightclub shooter’s homophobia. Travis doesn’t blame one particular group for the filth and depravity of Times Square in the 1970s. Corruption is everywhere. We see it through his eyes: gangs throwing trash at his cab, couples using the back seat as they would a cheap motel. When he finally decides to use his guns, it’s not to massacre innocents, but save one, a prepubescent sex worker named Iris (Jodie Foster).
The most confounding part of Travis' story is the way it ends. Many lone gunmen take their own lives to avoid capture. Travis fails to do so, but he doesn’t go to prison. Instead, he’s treated as a hero and goes straight back to work. One night, he finds Betsy in his cab. They make small talk. He drops her at home. And then he drives away as if none of it had happened. If only it were that easy to leave real-life violence in the past.
Taxi Driver screens in 35mm at O Cinema Miami Beach this Saturday. Watch it, and try to forget that Travis Bickle might be driving your Uber.
11:45 p.m. Saturday, May 20, at O Cinema Miami Beach, 500 71st St., Miami Beach; o-cinema.org; 786-207-1919. Tickets cost $10 for general admission. Visit o-cinema.org.
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