What’s Up With That Ending?: Taxi Driver

The ending of Taxi Driver starts off with an intense shootout, and is followed by an aftermath that many interpret as Travis Bickle’s dying dream. Should we take it as reality or is this what Travis wishes was his ending?

The ending sequence begins with a violent shootout, where Travis swings in like the John Wayne hero he’s modeled himself to be. After failing to assasinate the Senator, Travis goes to save Iris (the young prostitute he befriended) by killing her pimp and client. Travis gets shot in the neck and the arm. The shootout ends with Travis bloodied on the couch  next to a crying Iris. A cop enters and Travis mimes shooting himself in the head. Travis leans his headback and stares up at the ceiling as the camera changes to a birds-eye view of the leftover carnage. It seems like Travis is dying right there and then on the couch.

Then we find that instead of dying in the shootout, Travis survives and becomes a local hero. “Taxi driver…” the headline reads on the newspaper clippings hung on Travis’ apartment wall.  We hear a thankful letter written by Iris’ parents. Iris has returned home thanks to Travis’ intervention.

This all feels quite implausible, that Travis was able to come out a hero despite having murdered several people in cold blood. It is possible  First of all, with the crazy mohawk and interaction with the cops, Travis looked like anything but a hero. Also, the easily spotted mohawked Travis was just seen approaching the Senator in a manner of attempted assassination. His wounds shown in the shootout, especially the one in his neck, seemed quite severe as well. And lastly, his gun was unregistered, which he mentions in the film after killing the store robber.

The next sequence and final scene we see Travis with his hair grown back as it used to be. We see Travis get into his taxi cab. As he is driving, we see Betsy in the rear view mirror. We only see her in the mirror, so he could easily be talking to himself and imagining all this, but then we see her get out of the car.

Betsy seems smitten and impressed with Travis, she mentions having read about his heroism in the papers. This I find the most difficult to believe. After that horribly awkward date, and that Travis continually stalked her afterwards, I don’t see how Betsy could have wanted to reconnect with Travis again.

But while several elements of these scenes seem to be very dream-like, it becomes clear from interviews with the writer Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese that they were not writing or filming it with the idea of a “dreamscape” in mind.Scorsese comments on the DVD commentary saying that the odd shot of Travis glancing at an unseen object in the mirror shows that he is like a “ticking time bomb” and will easily fall into rage and recklessness again. Or, as Paul Schrader puts it, that Travis is “not cured by the movie’s end. He’s not going to be a hero next time”.

The scenes after the shootout do seem too good to be true, as if it is Travis’ imagination running wild with the public reaction to him saving the day. But, keeping the filmmaker’s intention in mind, we put the facts and logistics aside and see what the film wants to get across by having these sequences be reality.

1976, New York, New York, USA --- Overhead view of the bloody aftermath of Travis Bickle's killing spree from Martin Scorsese's . --- Image by © Steve Schapiro/Corbis

All throughout the film, Travis has been looking for an outlet for his violent thoughts, a way to escape the loneliness that’s been plaguing him. And only by acting out violently is he able to escape it. When everything with Betsy fell through, Travis turned to the next best thing, Iris. By killing her pimp and her seedy client, he is able to live out and fulfill the hero fantasy. And right there to help him is the American media.

It is ironic that Travis, the perpetual outsider becomes celebrated in society by violating its laws. The law-abiding Travis was invisible, but the murderous Travis is a hero. This validates Travis’ criticisms of New York society (especially wrought in the tensions of post-Vietnam), which tolerates and praises violent behavior. But how society perceives him is entirely based on who’s at the end of the gun. Had Travis assassinated the politician, his fate would have been much different. But by killing grimy pimps and mobsters, Travis is a hero. And the media is right there to perpetuate it, to blow  up Travis’ heroism even further.

I do believe it is easy to see all the scenes after the shootout as Travis’ dream of wish fulfillment. The filmmakers filmed those scenes as the truth, that Travis got away with the murders but will end up murdering again. Of course the ending is still open to interpretation, but having the ending be truth shows how easily media and society feeds off of violence,  and those that are isolated from others can easily fall into it.

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