Men With Guns: Taxi Driver (1976) and Breathless (1960)

The fact that Taxi Driver inspired an assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan is not the only reason it is a great film. Its greatness transcends what it inspired— the assassination attempt, the vindication of loners, affirmation of pensive alienation— and, instead, lies in its willingness to (un)tangle violence, resentment, and loneliness. By situating the film’s protagonist, Travis Bickle, in conversation with other Big Screen Outlaws, we find that the politics of resentment are co-constitutive with the violence of toxic masculinity.

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver belongs in conversation with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. In Taxi Driver, Travis ruminates alone, delves into a world of drugs, firearms, and prostitution, all while envisioning the destruction of American society; in Breathless, Michel kills a cop, associates with Parisien gangsters, and plans to escape to Italy. They both have vivid convictions about their place in the world, strong ideas about what modern society does to people, and they both operate at the extreme margins of societies. Travis and Michel are outlaws.

A key difference, however, is that Michel enjoys things. One of the first things the Breathless protagonist tells us is, “I really love France. If you don’t love the sea, if you don’t love the mountains, if you don’t love cities, then go fuck yourself.” He’s worked as an airline stewardess, a mechanic, and a petty criminal— and, fittingly accompanied by jazz, he lives spontaneously and joyfully present in his immediate surroundings. But by the time Travis, a decade later, and on another continent, listens to jazz, the notes have become heavy and melancholy. Driving around New York, Travis finds no cause for enjoyment or redemption; the streets, the people, and social customs are, “sick, vile.”  

Joy and spontaneity often go alongside with sheer ignorance, which is why we associate the truth with pain and wisdom with detachment. But — as it’s clear to everyone chasing-down, working-with, or loving Michel— the French protagonist is not dumb. His shrewd observations enable him to achieve his desires without slow, weighty deliberation. More importantly, his acuity lets him make distinctions of quality. He seeks out the best cars, finest cigarettes, and admires his favorite actors with true reverence. Despite his marginal position within society, he is a man of good taste, which is to say that he is not a passive nihilist— which is the philosophy of idiots.

And yet, the presence of inferior people does not cause disdain in Michel. He acknowledges that he must live alongside them. When his love interest, Patricia, laments that someone ratted on him, he reminds her that, “It’s normal. Liars lie, thieves steal, lovers love, informers inform.” Michel observes but refrains from unnecessary judgement. Not everyone has to live like him.

Travis, however, observes and judges— and concludes that everyone should identify with his worldview. The film provides us with ample evidence of his disdain for the New York he sees deteriorating before his eyes. His monologues describe the pimps, prostitutes, broken fire hydrants, etc. as physical and moral abominations. Even the one woman he believed to be his moral equal turns out to be, “cold and distant, just like the rest of them,” which, ironically, deepens his mental segregation from society.

The commencement of a Presidential Campaign introduces Travis to the possibility that things might improve. Yet, when asked what he thinks about the candidate’s stance on welfare, he says, “You know, I’m not sure what his stance is, but I’m sure it’s a good one.” His uninformed response is symptomatic of the fact that he doesn’t follow politics, which itself is symptomatic of the fact that his aesthetic of Justice comes from the Old Testament— not modern electoral politics. That’s why he states, “Someday, a Real Rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” Having no hope in love or politics, he concedes that the only viable option is total annihilation.

But God doesn’t exist in Travis’ world. Justice, therefore, must come from him in one violent outburst. He internalizes the city’s chaos, transposes it onto his body, and tries to render it manageable through exercise. Committing himself to working out, he tells himself, “It will be total organization— every muscle will be tight,” which is isomorphic to his ideal vision for the streets. No excessive leisure or pleasure.

This engenders a kind of justice that is paternalistic as it is resentful. Unsurprisingly, he decides to save an underage sex worker before consulting her, and he wants to send her home despite the fact the she says her home-life was horrible. Travis believes a young girl belongs at home, in a two-parent household, and so he arranges for that to happen; he is unwilling to entertain a difference between his ideals and reality. His all-encompassing resentment, of course, magnifies and multiplies his calls to action. And his plan of action, since it is within the negative logic of nihilistic resentment, is infinitely negative: kill the would-be president, kill the pimps, kill the drug dealers, kill everybody. We’re never given the sense that he has a plan for after these events transpire, which is also why he ignores his former love interest’s attention at the end of the film: he doesn’t want her because he doesn’t want anything.

The script’s author, Paul Schrader, noted that, despite the straightforward plot-line, Taxi Driver’s final scene, “could be spliced to the first frame, and the movie [starts] all over again.” Travis’ final burst of rage, regardless of its public utility (death of a few pimps), does not cleanse Bickle of his resentment, which incessantly festers in his psyche. His philosophy/psychology makes difference deplorable without being able to erase difference itself. Hence his arrival at a deadlock in which the final solution is to kill himself. The only thing that saves Travis is that, by the end of his killing spree, he has expended all of his bullets.

Interestingly, Travis becomes a hero in the eyes of the society he loathed. Parents write to him, thanking him for his work; police and newspapers recognize his valor; everyone recognizes him as a force for good. He ultimately becomes a perfect bourgeois hero. Breathless, on the other hand, concludes with a lengthy scene in which the police track-down and kill Michel— suggesting that his joyful indifference, unlike Travis’ rageful resentment, cannot be co-opted by the State.

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