The Redemption of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)

In many film noirs our protagonists are on a quest for redemption, and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is no exception. Our main character, Travis Bickle, is haunted by the isolating and corrupt New York City landscape. One particular event that resonates with Travis is when Iris enters his Taxi cab and he watches as she is dragged out helplessly back into the slums of New York. As the movie progresses we are given a violent and surreal ending that portrays Travis as a vigilante hero in his quest to save Iris.

For Travis, the only way redemption can be accomplished is through violence, which culminates in a blood filled conclusion. The potential for immense bloodshed builds up throughout the movie, until it explodes with an onslaught of gun shots. Besides the illegal purchase of various guns and the shooting of a thief, there is a visual motif that hints at the shootout. As Travis and Isis have more and more encounters the more prevalent the color red is. When Travis hires Isis, both of these characters are wearing red clothing and are in a reddish colored apartment. When they meet in the diner Travis is wearing a red flannel, Iris is wearing a reddish shirt, and in the background there are multiple red items. The red foreshadows the blood that will fall on Travis’s path to redemption.

Travis’s quest to be a hero in a setting of urban decay mimics that of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The first similarity is in the setting, which is New York City. In this city, the main characters have trouble adapting to sleazy environments that surrounds them. These two cynical characters have encounters with prostitutes, only they do not to have sex with them. The most striking similarity is in their mission to save a young girl’s innocence from the impure world. It is clear that the characters of Phoebe and Iris are mirrors of each other, which possesses innocence that Holden and Travis want to respectfully protect.

After the shootout, the story takes a turn into the surreal. Whether the ending is real or a fictional portrayal of Travis’s ideal imagination can be debated. The story has been consistently presented as a reliable narrative, and a switch to unreliable narration would be a strange twist. This would suggest that the ending is real. More likely, the ending is a romanticized version of Travis’s ideal version of the events. It is unlikely that Travis will be billed as a hero by the papers, be able to continue to work without criminal charges, and be able to have a conversation with his idealized beauty, Debby. It is also suggested that it is fantasy by the wooden reading of a letter by Iris’s parents. Martin Scorsese uses the same open ended conclusion in the dark comedy The King of Comedy, which also stars Robert Deniro. In that movie we are unsure if the main character, Rupert Pupkin, has truly become a comedy icon or if it is all in his head.

Whether the ending is real or not does not matter to Travis. In his mind he has achieved redemption by saving Iris and ridding the world of some of its slim. Our last shot is him adjusting his mirrors from his eyes, which represents what’s in front of him, to the city, which represents him putting the past behind him. In the end Travis is putting the city in his rearview window, as he leaves fully redeemed in his mind.

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