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Written by Timothy Sexton
Travis Bickle is the protagonist of Taxi Driver and it is through his eyes that we bear witness to everything that happens—often quite literally. The camera often takes the subjective point of view from the perspective of Travis so that what we are looking at on screen is what he is looking at in the real life that is his world. That world is shaped by loneliness, alienation, paranoia and an existential disconnect from every person he meets. Travis Bickle is often lumped in with the other “psycho Vietnam vets” who populated so many movies in the 1970s and 1980s, but he is a far more special case. He is also often portrayed as one of Hollywood’s all-time memorable pure psychos, but it is vital to remember that while Travis may have fantasies of assassinating a candidate for President, his explosion of violence that is the film’s climax is directed toward rescuing a 13 year old girl from a life of prostitution and drug abuse. Norman Bates he ain’t.
Betsy is low-level campaign worker for Presidential candidate Charles Palantine. She is pure fantasy for Travis. Oh, to be sure, she very much exists and is very much flesh and blood, but though Travis actually does manage to wrangle a date with her, he never really sees or meets the real Betsy. Her blonde hair symbolizes her innocence in the eyes of a man whose worldview is a mythic realm of stark divisions between good and evil, right and wrong and utterly absent even the capacity to intuit nuance. Because we see Betsy through the eyes of Travis, she may come across to some as shallow or vapid or simply incomplete as a character, which is why it is important to keep in mind that the film is very much an attempt to present objectively framed scenes and events as the subjective interpretation of its main character. Betsy is the innocent damsel that he thinks it is his duty as the knight of the city to rescue. When she fails to live up to his fantasy, he knocks her completely off her pedestal.
Once Betsy reveals herself to be as corrupted as those Travis wants to save her from—at least in his eyes—he turns his knightly intentions to Iris, a 13 year old prostitute whom he briefly encounters couple of times while driving his cab through the purgatorial nightscape of New York City. He tries to meet her through her pimp, but refuses to engage in sex with her. The next day they meet for coffee and Iris cements her status as another blond fantasy damsel who needs rescuing. The much vaunted and criticized explicit violence that fuels the climax is the result of Travis going through with his plan of rescue.
Sport is the pimp who becomes the evil dragon that Travis must slay to free Iris from her enslavement to him. At least, that is how Travis views the admittedly repulsive figure, but in one of the few scenes that it is not a subjective interpretation of reality through the eyes of Travis, the relationship between Sport and Iris is revealed to be far more emotionally and psychologically intricate that Travis could ever be capable of understanding. Despite being a person whose black and white conception of the world is continually contradicted by events, Travis remains committed to his perspective that Iris not only needs to be rescued from Sport, but will be effusively and forever grateful.
Tom works alongside Betsy in the Palpatine campaign headquarters and is situated as a counterpoint to Travis. Like Travis, he is in love with Betsy, although he knows the real Betsy behind the blonde fantasy in a way Travis can never hope to do. Even so, ultimately Tom demonstrates that you don’t have to be borderline Borderline Personality Disorder sufferer like Travis to create the fantasy that your job as a man is to protect women. Travis paints Tom as a silly and useless influence on Betsy—one of the corruptibles she needs him to save her from—while Tom is willingly subservient to Betsy when he ongoing game of meaningless flirtation requires that he play the protector from the weird taxi driver who has been staring at her from inside his cab across the street.
Wizard is an older taxi driver who dispenses advice like the type of fantasy figure for which he is name. If there was ever any doubt that Travis sees himself as a knight astride his golden steed while on the lookout for damsels in distress, the introduction of a character named Wizard should make things abundantly clear. Travis seeks the counsel of Wizard, but like many oracles his advice is couched in a confused sort of philosophical meandering and Travis is most definitely not the type of person who can easily gain anything of value from Wizard.
A few years after Taxi Driver was released, a man named John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Pres. Ronald Reagan. Subsequent details revealed that the motivation behind the shooting was a desire to impress actress Jodie Foster. Foster was the teenager who had played Iris and almost as soon as it was learned that Hinckley had obsessively watched Taxi Driver over and over again, attempts were made to link his real life assassination attempt with the minor subplot in which Travis Bickle’s attempt to assassination Charles Palantine fails miserably before he can even get close. Palantine’s presence is far more strongly felt through the film as a result of the campaign office in which two far more important characters work than through scenes involving Palantine himself. Bickle’s preparation for his assassination attempt and its failure to play out is important to the narrative as a device that leads to his successful rescue of Iris rather than as a story of a mentally unbalanced young man trying to kill a politician.
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