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God’s Lonely Men: ‘Taxi Driver’ in the Age of the Incels

Although Martin Scorsese’s movie is more than 40 years old, it is eerily alive to this moment, horrific for reasons beyond what its creators could have imagined

Robert DeNiro in ‘Taxi Driver’ Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration

In the trailer for one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year, Paul Schrader’s corrosive First Reformed, a quote appears on screen from a critic who calls it “an outrageous update of Taxi Driver for a world of liveleak videos and climate change.” Both films are stories, written by Schrader, of catatonically lonely American men driven to the brink by their disdain for what they perceive as a rapidly declining modern society. Given that Taxi Driver remains Schrader’s best-known script, plenty of other critics drew the parallel, too: One called First Reformed “the Taxi Driver of the millennial generation,” while another proclaimed—in the conservative publication The Spectator, of all places—First Reformed is Taxi Driver for the age of Trump.” But if you’ve revisited Taxi Driver recently, that analogy starts to feel a little beside the point. Taxi Driver is already the Taxi Driver for the Age of Trump.

Last week, immediately after watching Martin Scorsese’s 1976 fever dream for the first time in more than a decade, I scrambled for my phone to confirm that I was not the only person who had completely misremembered the ending of the movie: I could have sworn Travis Bickle died. (The movie has been streaming this month in a limited engagement on FilmStruck, and it has occupied the top spot in their “Most Popular” module for as long as it’s been available.) The last image I remembered from Taxi Driver was that famous, otherworldly slow-motion shot from above—“priest’s eye view,” Scorsese has called it—cataloging the carnage of Bickle’s killing spree as the police arrive. What I’d forgotten was the movie’s surreal coda, in which Bickle not only survives but becomes a vigilante hero in the newspapers, receives a letter from 12-year-old Iris’s parents thanking Bickle for saving their daughter from a life of prostitution, and, perhaps least plausibly, gets another chance with his WASP goddess, Betsy, even though she knows he has just murdered three people and the last time she saw him he showed up at her workplace to harass her, threaten her, and tell her she was scum just like everybody else. With all due respect to Paul Schrader, I liked my ending better. It had a certain closure.

My Googling confirmed that some people do believe that Taxi Driver’s epilogue is a dream sequence—a kind of death dream, as the camera mimics Bickle’s soul leaving his body. Roger Ebert, in his 2004 reconsideration of the film, took up the question and came down on the side of artistic ambiguity: “Is this a fantasy scene? Did Travis survive the shoot-out? Are we experiencing his dying thoughts? Can the sequence be accepted as literally true? I am not sure there can be an answer to these questions. The end sequence plays like music, not drama: It completes the story on an emotional, not a literal, level.”

But I tend to agree more with film critic Pauline Kael, who took the ending to be true and thus, “a real slap in the face” for a viewer looking for a sense of justice. “The film doesn’t operate on the level of moral judgment of what Travis does,” she wrote. “Rather, by drawing us into his vortex it makes us understand the psychic discharge of the quiet boys who go berserk. … It’s not that he’s cured but that the city is crazier than he is.” Or, you know, the whole country.

In misremembering the ending, my brain was seeking a tidier conclusion and a more comforting reality, but the truth is that of course Travis did not die. In a very real sense, he lives still. We even have a word for guys like him these days. He’s an incel.

Two things are striking about a scene early in the film, when Travis congregates with his fellow cabbies in an uptown diner after they’ve finished their night shifts. One is that this display of camaraderie and workplace community—even if it’s just a weirdo trying to sell you a slab of Errol Flynn’s bathtub—feels utterly outmoded: In 2018, Travis Bickle would be an Uber driver who would go straight home, alone, at the end of his shift (probably longer hours for less pay) and wouldn’t know his colleagues if he passed them on the street. He’d likely have even less human connection in his life and an odd sense of detachment from the company for which he’s contracted. But also, it’s impossible not to notice the campaign posters tacked up on the walls in that scene, supporting not Senator Charles Palantine (who Travis will later try to assassinate) but his rival presidential candidate. In one shot, a poster is framed right next to Travis’s head. “GOODWIN,” it says, and then, get this—“A RETURN TO GREATNESS.”

Taxi Driver is a deeply unsettling movie to rewatch right now, in the time of mass shootings, MAGA ideology, and the rage of the down-on-his-luck white man scared to death of his imagined obsolescence. (Not to mention shameless politicians playing on that fear to win votes.) Although the movie is more than 42 years old, it is eerily alive to this moment, horrific for reasons beyond what its creators could have imagined. I am sorry to admit that another thing I misremembered about the film was its body count: It’s pathetically telling that I found myself a little surprised that in the climactic bloodbath, Travis “only” kills three people. When I mentioned this to a friend, she gave a depressingly 2018 response: “Well, what kind of gun was he using? If it were made today he’d probably have an automatic assault rifle.”

In 1972, Schrader wrote the script for Taxi Driver in 10 frantic days, as an L.A. spring was giving way to summer: “It sprang from my head like an animal,” he’s said. He’d just been dumped by the woman he’d left his wife for, and he spent lonely, sleepless nights driving around, drinking scotch, and going to seedy 8mm peep shows. As a document, there is an eerie, thrumming aura to the Taxi Driver script (it makes me think of the glowing suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly), and indeed the idea had first come to Schrader during an experience of intense physical pain, when he was hospitalized with an ulcer. One of the first people to read the finished draft was Pauline Kael, a good friend of Schrader’s. She devoured it in one sitting, and according to her biographer Brian Kellow, she was so unnerved by it that she could not fall asleep that night with the script still in her bedroom: “Eventually she took it into another room, stacked a pile of other things on top of it, and went back to bed.”

The same month he wrote the script, a man named Arthur Bremer shot the Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace with a five-shot .38 revolver, paralyzing Wallace from the waist down and injuring three bystanders. Schrader was fascinated by the story, and Bremer’s odd lack of partisan political motivation: He had initially been plotting to assassinate sitting Republican president Richard Nixon, but security around him was too tight, so he settled for Wallace. Bremer is not Travis Bickle, not exactly, but they share certain qualities, like a disturbing sense of entitlement about women. Reading David Montgomery’s 2015 essay about Bremer’s legacy, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that the year before the shooting, Bremer had been dumped by the only girlfriend he’d ever had. (He was 21 at the time of their relationship; she was 16.) “Bremer was devastated,” Montgomery writes. “He shaved his head to get her attention and considered suicide, he wrote in his diary.”

“In another culture he might have taken it out on himself,” Paul Schrader says of Travis Bickle in the Taxi Driver DVD commentary. “But in America we tend to act out these dramas on someone else’s stage, rather than our own.”

There’s a famous shot in Taxi Driver—Scorsese has actually called it “the most important shot in the film”—when Travis is on the phone with Cybill Shepherd’s character, Betsy, who has very sensibly declined going on another date with him after he surprised her and took her to a porno movie. He has been sending flowers to Betsy’s office; she has been declining them. As he talks to her on a pay phone, the camera slowly dollies away from Travis and settles instead on an empty hallway. Explained Scorsese, in 1976, “It’s too painful to see that rejection.” Given that this is a movie that is so comfortable showing us blood spurting out of a man’s blown-off fingers that it was very nearly given an X rating, Roger Ebert, in his initial review, found this detail curious: “That Scorsese finds the rejection more painful than the murders is fascinating, because it helps to explain Travis Bickle, and perhaps it goes some way toward explaining one kind of urban violence.” But as an American woman attempting to survive in 2018, I did not find this especially surprising. Like so many things in the news these days, it made me think of that Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”

There’s a creepy air of propriety to the way Travis sees Betsy from the start. His sole justification for believing they should be together is that she is “the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen,” a quality that leads him to stalk her at work until he gains the nerve to ask her out. In reducing her to an impossible ideal, he is setting himself up for the kind of disappointment that only furthers his frustration. He is utterly uninterested in the qualities that make her a three-dimensional human and the kinds of things that, when shared—common interests, a sense of humor—can lead to the kind of connection he craves. “You’re raised to worship women,” Scorsese has said, explaining his character’s motivations, “but you don’t know how to approach them on a human level, on a sexual level. That’s the thing with Travis.”

One old-fashioned aspect of Taxi Driver is that in 2018 Travis would not be writing into the silent void of his journal: He’d be posting his rants on subreddits and incel forums, his anger most likely stoked and his misogyny deepened by the kinds of extremists he’d find there, who would give him new justifications to hate women like Betsy rather than tools to connect with them on a human level. That is probably the most difficult part of the film to stomach in a modern context, especially for female viewers: 42 years later, the same kind of logic that drives Travis to kill is alive and well, recognizable in the manifestos of men like Elliot Rodger (who killed six people and injured 14 all because he believed that women were “depriving [him] of sex”) and Alek Minassian (who earlier this year carried out a van attack in Toronto that left 10 people dead and 15 injured, a part of what he called the “Incel Rebellion”) and the disturbingly visible online communities of people who praise them as vigilante heroes.

To live in America in 2018 is to endure a steady and desensitizing barrage of news stories about massacres that make Travis Bickle’s actions look chillingly tame. The common denominators in nearly all of these stories—whether they happened yesterday or 50 years ago—are so obviously misogyny and social isolation, but point that out and see how the Greek prophet Cassandra felt. Nobody’s listening.

In that same interview where he talked about panning away from Travis’s rejection, Scorsese was asked if he thought the film he’d made before Taxi Driver, 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was feminist. “Actually, not Alice, but Taxi Driver—this is my feminist film,” he said. “Who says a feminist movie has to be about women? Alice was never intended as a feminist tract. At the end, she’s making the same mistakes. [But Taxi Driver is] feminist. Because it takes macho to its logical conclusion. … This one shows that kind of thinking, shows the kinds of problems some men have, bouncing back and forth between the goddesses and whores.”

When I first read this, I rolled my eyes at the page. Then I paused for a moment and rolled them even harder, because Scorsese’s not exactly wrong.

Though I’m not sure I would have agreed when I first watched Taxi Driver a decade ago, I have in the intervening years grown tired of arguments about whether or not a movie, or a TV show, or any other well-funded cultural product is “feminist.” I agree with the critic Andi Zeisler, who has written, “[A]rguments over whether a movie is ‘feminist’ or ‘not feminist’—especially when that movie never intended to claim either—suggest that feminism is not a set of values, ethics, and politics, but merely an assessment of whether or not a product is worthy of consumption. … Treating feminism as a fixed metric flattens out the narrative possibilities that make people want to see movies in the first place. Seeing a movie that’s not feminist doesn’t keep anyone from watching it through a feminist lens.”

And so I can be disgusted by what I see in Taxi Driver and still queasily compelled by it as a work of art. I haven’t been able to shake it from my mind since rewatching it last week, and I see echoes of it everywhere, which certainly means it is tapped into some sort of undeniable truth. “We have all felt as alone as Travis,” Ebert wrote in 2004. “Most of us are better at dealing with it.” But as a society, in the years since, we’ve become even worse at dealing with most of the things that plague Scorsese’s protagonist. Perhaps the most frightening part of watching Taxi Driver now is that he would likely be worse off in 2018 than he is in 1976: Our sense of community has eroded and the kind of loneliness he experiences has only grown more common—or at least more visibly mainstream.

“If this film weren’t controversial,” Paul Schrader said years ago, “there’d be something wrong with the country.” Can both be true?