Postmodern Antihero: Capitalism and Heroism in Taxi Driver
by Matthew J. Iannucci
Bright Lights Film Journal
Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is a gritty, disturbing, nightmarish modern film classic that examines alienation in urban society. From a postmodernist's perspective, it combines the elements of noir, the Western, horror, and urban melodrama as it explores the psychological madness within an obsessed, inarticulate, lonely antihero cab driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). The plotline is simple: Travis directs his frustrated anger at the street dwellers of New York and a presidential candidate, and his unhinging assault is paired with an attempt to rescue a young prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), from her predatory pimp. Historically, Taxi Driver appeared after a decade of war in Vietnam (1976), and after the Watergate crisis and subsequent resignation of Nixon. Five years later, when it was linked to would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley and his obsession with Jodie Foster, it became prima facie evidence for those on the political right who believed that violence in film translates into crime in real life. It is now almost impossible to separate Taxi Driver from this debate. However, Bickle's antiheroic character is more directly related to a failure of a capitalist system that pits his working-class position as a cab driver against those who have already been disenfranchised according to socioeconomic class, gender, and/or race.
As the film opens, Travis emerges from a forgotten Midwestern form of Americana that appears as obsolete as Travis himself in a big city heterogeneously composed of corporate financiers, political patrons, gun dealers, and prostitutes. In order to survive, he wants to "become a person like other people" as he puts it, but his own disenfranchisement from this nation has left him both intellectually and emotionally bankrupt from the Vietnam War. Freedom, the very nucleus of the American dream, is dependent on individual socioeconomic choices that inform and shape one's identity. But Travis's lack of a distinct identity compels him to cut and paste together what he believes is a heroic identity from an external menu of personages such as the "gunslinger" and the Indian. In actuality, what he does is stitch together a postmodern antiheroic identity that is nostalgic and pop culture-oriented, evidenced by the Mohawk haircut that he sports in the penultimate sequences — because he possesses no internal self.
Taxi Driver implies that identity is not genuine but always synergistic, a kind of potpourri of idolatry and maxims drawn from popular culture, especially from violent movies and television news. In this vein, Robert Ray views Taxi Driver as a postmodern "corrected" Right film, the type of film generally aimed at a naïve audience. Ray explains that a "Right" film presents a traditional conservative philosophy that promotes the application of Western-style, individual solutions to complex contemporary problems. He writes, "Taxi Driver's basic story followed the right wing's loyalty to the classic Western formula: a reluctant individual, confronted by evil, acts on his own to rid society of spoilers. As played by Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver's protagonist had obvious connections with Western heroes…even his name, Travis, linked him to the defender of the Alamo."1 Ray's notion that the film is a "correction" of the right-wing concept of justice is accurate because of its odd plot twist at the conclusion. Normally, such a story would identify Travis's complicity with these criminals and thereby relegate him to some form of institutional punishment. But the film's underlying theme reveals how absurd the Western idealistic depiction of heroism is because the news media in the film not only ignores his actions but also glorifies a psychopathic killer as a noble warrior.
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