The Uneasy Heroism of Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver, Film, dir. Scorsese, 1976

Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is a film that escapes conventional genre definition, something that a quick survey of online movie reviews reveals: Scheib reads it as a psychological thriller — albeit one turned upon its head because the film’s protagonist is also the source of psychological fear1; Dread Central claims it as one of their own, citing the penultimate scene of the film as characteristic of a “slasher” film2, while choosing to ignore the markedly Noir aesthetic of the rest of the film. Applying Pramaggiore and Wallis’3 definition of Film Noir — which according to Maltby also covers under its umbrella the genres of “Detective Mystery Melodramas”, “Social Problem Crime Films”, and “Psychological Dramas”4— we find that it mostly fits but for a few exceptions5. I argue that Taxi Driver is difficult to categorise because it undermines the very root of the mythic traditions of the fictive narrative6, specifically the romantic myth of the Hero’s Quest7. This is different from anti-Heroism, where in the typical Hollywood narrative it functions to question the institution, but never basic morality.

Frye states that the “affinity between the mythical and the abstractly literary illuminates many aspects of fiction”. This affinity can be seen in how myth is incorporated in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey8, and then in Vogler — a “Hollywood protégé” of Campbell9 — whom delineated 12 phases of character transformation10 that corresponds with the Heroic Quest within Frye’s Mythos of Summer. This Hollywood-ean idea of the Hero’s Journey is present in Film Noir as well, although he or she does not always attain the “final mastery of the problem” in the conventional sense, such as in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and a more recent example of Neo-Noir, The Salton Sea by DJ. Caruso (2002). Taxi Driver, if one were to look at the surface of the film, has Travis Bickle attain “final mastery of the problem”, in the form of cleaning the “streets” of “scum”, and actually presents Frye’s fourth stage of the Heroic Romance, where we have “Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride”11 — Bickle’s hospital bed is surrounded by testaments to his “heroism” at the apartment where he rescued Iris, and at the end of the film Betsy acknowledges his act. Hence given what Todorov calls the “verisimilitude”12 of the film to the mythos of the Hero, Bickle given his “asocial” tendencies could be seen as an anti-Heroic figure, but ultimately with good intent. But I argue that Taxi Driver means question this idea of “good intent” by twisting the Heroic myth.

Throughout the entire film, Bickle’s values are consistently questioned at every turn — whether when he attempts to bring Betsy to a porn film for a date, or through Iris whom he apparently “rescues” from Sport. What is made clear about his purpose, his self-assigned “dragon-killing theme” if we were to apply Frye13, is that he intends to “wash all this scum off the streets”. But in a telling scene where he first starts out as a cab driver (before he meets Betsy for the first time), he winds up the window as he passes a cleaning truck spraying water over the roads to clean the streets. He intends to cleanse, but does not submit to cleansing himself.

Another thing that should strike the viewer is Bickle’s complicity in the apparent amorality of the “scum”. According to Bickle himself, his vehicle does not discriminate:

“Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. 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.”

His moral ambiguity is most apparent when the film switches from Bickle’s attempted assassination of Senator Palantine to the shootout at Sport’s apartment, leaving all its occupants dead except for Iris and Bickle (although Roger Ebert14 proposes an alternative reading of the film where the final scene is the wish-fulfillment dream of a dying Travis Bickle). To him, both are variations on a theme15, where he is the agent that enacts cleansing.

However, Bickle’s narrative is still presented within the framework of Vogler’s Hero’s Journey, setting up dissonant poles of Bickle’s characterisation through narrative structure (Hero’s Journey), and his characterisation through diegetic acts as shown above.

This dissonance is further tweaked by Bickle’s off-center moral compass, which throws the spectators own moral compass off balance. The spectator comes in with genre expectations formed by the associations that the film draws: Bickle figures as the Vietnam War veteran — few films dealing with the Vietnam war had been made by 1976 — whom are figures of masculinity and patriotism; the Noir aesthetic of the film, especially with Bickle’s narration, nudges the spectator to find the central mystery in the film that Bickle is slated to solve; the spectator watching the film thinking it’s a psychological drama would expect the source of danger to be Other to the protagonist, and not Bickle himself. Taxi Driver overturns every one of these expectations by setting up Bickle as a Heroic (or anti-Heroic character), and then overturning genre and moral assumptions: the Vietnam War veteran is mentally unstable, and proven to be physically dangerous to society (in the case of the attempted assassination) and morally warped (no qualms about killing, as long as they are “scum”); the mystery or crime that the spectator expects to solve does not exist, or only exists because Bickle creates the problem, i.e. his fixation with “washing” the streets of its “scum”, while its vice is shown to be mainly benign while he himself is a violent force; Bickle’s confrontation with his own reflection in the mirror makes it apparent that the spectator is not meant to identify with him as even he himself as problems establishing rapport through the apparatus of perception — caught in a Lacanian pre-mirror phase. Applying Frye’s “dragon-killing theme”, we conventionally seek external “Leviathans” or “sterility of the land” which Bickle seems to assign this to the “streets”. However, Bickle begins the film on the streets, and never seems to move out of it. In this pre-mirror phase phase, he sees the streets, but is unable to see that it is perhaps a reflection of him. He is of the streets, and therefore part of this “dragon” that he is attempting to “slay”. One could say that this is classic Freudian disavowal, and that he externalises blame by directing it towards Palantine, and eventually finds a perhaps more appropriate target in Sport.

In conclusion, Bickle is an upsetting character because he is not a character that is made to fit neatly into the apparatus of the cinema. The presentation of Bickle defies the spectators’ attempts to identify with him, nudging him or her to question the morality of the film.


  1. Scheib, Richard. “Taxi Driver.” Moria: Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review. 1999. http://moria.co.nz/horror/taxi-driver-1976.htm (accessed November 8, 2012).

  2. Uncle Creepy. “Lars Von Trier, Robert DeNiro, and Martin Scorsese Collaborating on New Taxi Driver.” Dread Central. February 15, 2010. http://www.dreadcentral.com/news/35923/lars-von-trier-robert-deniro-and-martin-scorsese-collaborating-new-taxi-driver (accessed November 8, 2012).

  3. Pramaggioro, Maria, and Tom Wallis. “Film Genre.” In Film: A Critical Introduction, by Maria Pramaggioro and Tom Wallis. New York and London: Pearson, 2011, 392–393.

  4. Maltby, Richard. ““Film Noir”: The Politics of the Maladjusted Text.” Journal of American Studies (Cambridge University Press on behalf of the British Association for American Studies ) 18, no. 1 (April 1984), 52.

  5. One could apply Pramaggiore and Wallis’ definition of Film Noir to Taxi Driver and find that it mostly fits. The film focuses on “characters who are down and out” and “face grim circumstances beyond their control”, and the aesthetic of the film revolves around the characters who “wander crowded urban streets”; the protagonist “has few friends [and] works alone”, is “apart from the law”, and because of his “asocial lifestyle and business practices, very little distinguishes the detective from the outlaws he pursues, save for an abstract (and at times, questionable) moral code.” All of the above would serve as a fitting description of DeNiro’s character Travis Bickle, as he approximates the “detective” that Pramaggiore and Wallis prescribe to the genre. But there is no tangible antagonist, or a “femme fatale” whom enacts the Freudian castration complex through her “sexual advances [that] trap the protagonist in a web of deceit where he must compromise his values to remain with her”. Bickle decides to “wash the scum off the streets” by pursuing two separate courses of action: (1) attempting to assassinate Senator Palantine; and (2) “rescuing” Iris by massacring the occupants of the apartment she is held in.

  6. Frye, Northrop. “The Mythos of Summer: Romance.” In Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, by Northrop Frye, 383. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957, 193.

  7. Ibid. 187.

  8. “For Campbell, myth is at the centre of the human experience; a way of living, knowing. Myth is an ‘opening through which humans understand life and how to live it; a way of reaching beyond the manifestation of the everyday scenario, and looking at its heart an emotional experience that connects all humanity as one.” Craig, Batty. Movies That Move Us: Screenwriting and the Power of the Protagonist’s Journey. Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, 48.

  9. Ibid., 53.

  10. “Character arc seen through character transformation is thus suggested as: (1)limited awareness of a problem; (2)increased awareness; (3)reluctance to change; (4)overcoming reluctance; (5)committing to change; (6)experimenting with first change; (7)preparing for big change; (8)attempting big change; (9)consequences of the attempt (improvements and setbacks); (10)rededication to change; (11)final attempt at big change; (12)final mastery of the problem.” Ibid., 53.

  11. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays”, 192.

  12. Todorov, as quoted in Neale, Steven. “Questions of Genre.” In Film Genre Reader III, by Barry Keith (ed.) Grant, edited by Barry Keith Grant, 160–184. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2003, 161

  13. “The central form of quest-romance is the dragon-killing theme exemplified in the stories of St. George and Perseus, already referred to. A land ruled by a helpless old king is laid waste by a sea-monster, to whom one young person after another is offered to be devoured, until the lot falls on the king’s daughter: at that point, the hero arrives, kills the dragon, marries the daughter, and succeeds to the kingdom.” Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, 189.

  14. Ebert, Roger. “Taxi Driver (1976).” rogerebert.com. January 1, 2004. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=//20040101/REVIEWS08/401010364/1023 (accessed November 11, 2012).

  15. Bickle sees both as a variation on a theme: the cleansing of the streets. But contemporary audiences would perhaps find that Bickle’s mediated attempt to assassinate Palantine is drawing too close a comparison to the Kennedy assassination 13 years before. In addition, Palantine draws no solid connection between the events of the film except for one taxi ride in Bickle’s cab and Betsy’s involvement in his presidential campaign. If there was any link between Palantine and Bickle’s “scum” it would be a link drawn by him and him only. His rescuing of Iris is left ambiguous as well. While Iris is a clear figure of a distressed figure, it is never made clear Iris’ own reaction to her own rescue, especially the film presents her as rather attached to Sport, albeit trapping her in a dangerously exploitative and abusive relationship. The intentionality of this moral ambiguity is confirmed an article in The Gazette, the “filmmakers” of Taxi Driver are quoted as saying: “In the aftermath of violence, the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes a matter of interpretation or misinterpretation of facts. TAXI DRIVER suggests that tragic errors can be made.” Shenectady Gazette. “Taxi Driver Lashed Out At Society.” Google News: Shenectady Gazette. January 27, 1979. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1917&dat=19790127&id=00RGAAAAIBAJ&sjid=OekMAAAAIBAJ&pg=2396,6713377 (accessed November 12, 2012).