Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
In Travis Bickle's case, this section should really be called "Anti-Hero's Journey"… When we first see Travis, he's a lonely and discontent Vietnam Vet, who becomes a taxi driver in order to make money at night when he's awake from insomnia.
His loneliness and unhappiness compound, as he notes the depravity and crime common in 1970s New York, and he hangs out in late night porno theaters. He's looking for an escape from his desperate world.
Call To Adventure
He finds that call to escape in the form of Betsy—a worker for Charles Palantine's presidential campaign. Observing her from his taxi, Travis imagines that she's an angel, untouched by the horrors of NYC, and the right person to save him from his own despair.
At the same time that he's fantasizing about Betsy, disturbing things keep happening—he claims he needs to clean out blood and semen from the back seat of his taxi when he returns it to the garage.
Refusal Of The Call
Travis pulls up outside campaign headquarters all the time, but doesn't go inside. He just watches Betsy through the window. At one point, Betsy's co-worker Tom goes outside to talk to Travis—since Betsy's noticed him watching her—but Travis peels out, speeding away. He hasn't yet worked up the courage to go inside and talk to her.
Meeting The Mentor
Travis meets up with other cab drivers—Wizard, Charlie T, and Dough Boy—at a diner. They give him advice on how to deal with being a cab driver, but Travis doesn't seem all that attentive. For instance, Dough Boy and Wizard discuss the benefits of carrying a gun for self-protection, advice that Travis later will take, but for sick reasons—he's thinking about doing a lot more than protecting himself.
At one point, Travis actually turns to Wizard for advice, but Wizard's well-intentioned yet rambling speech doesn't offer any serious help (although Wizard acts compassionately, telling him to relax and assuring him that everything will be okay).
Crossing The Threshold
When Travis finally does talk to Betsy things start to go improbably well—she agrees to get something to eat with him, and they seem to hit it off, despite Travis' odd way of talking about things. Unfortunately, Travis decides to take her to a porn movie on their first date—which turns off Betsy and immediately ruins their prospects for any kind of future.
Later, over the phone, Betsy refuses to go out on another date with Travis. Strangely enough, this puts him on the anti-hero's journey in a big way—having failed to connect with another person, he's ready to lash out against humanity.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
After cursing Betsy out at campaign headquarters and causing a scene, Travis starts to go increasingly crazy. He buys a ton of illegal guns from a black market gun salesman and practices drawing them over and over again in his room. Eventually, he finds an opportunity to actually use one of those guns, shooting a robber who was trying to hold up a local convenience store.
At the same time, he meets a twelve-year-old prostitute named Iris who he wants to free from her pimp, Sport, and he also starts to fantasize about assassinating Charles Palantine.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
Travis personally seeks out Iris and urges her to leave her pimp, offering to give her money to escape. Simultaneously, he's scoping out Palantine rallies, thinking about shooting the potential nominee. Enjoying the risk, he even chats up a Secret Service agent, claiming he saw some suspicious people around and acting like he would like to be a Secret Service agent too.
When Travis finally decides to do it, he sends money to Iris with a note saying he'll be dead by the time she receives it, shaves his head (leaving a Mohawk top), and heads down to a Palantine rally. However, as he tries to draw his gun, he gets spotted by the Secret Service, and runs away—escaping successfully.
Now, he has to recalibrate—how should he express his rage and insanity? Assassinating Palantine is out, so he decides to kill Sport (Iris' pimp) and a couple other gangster-ish guys in the process.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Travis embarks on his murder rampage, taking a couple bullets in the process. He murders Sport with multiple gunshots, kills the gangster-john visiting Iris, and blows the fingers off the brothel time-keeper before stabbing him through the hand and blowing his brains out.
Having finished off these unsavory characters, leaving Iris sobbing and scared, Travis tries to shoot himself—but he's out of ammo. The shocked cops who arrive on the scene confront a crazy-looking Travis pretending to shoot himself with his own fingers.
The Road Back
However—surprise! Travis is hailed as a hero. Everyone in New York was pretty fed up with crime, so the newspapers all view him as a hero for rescuing a child prostitute instead of a dangerous and mentally unstable murderer.
Iris' parents take her back to their home in Pittsburgh and send a note to Travis (who's been in a coma recovering from his wounds) thanking him for rescuing her. Against all apparent odds, Travis' rampage didn't land him in prison, and instead, elevated him.
Having come out of his coma, we see Travis interacting with the other cab drivers in a normal way, and then Betsy stops by and takes a ride in Travis' cab. She's curious to see what's going on with him, and says she read about him in the newspaper. Travis says he feels okay—"just a little stiffness."
When he drops her off, he insists on giving her a free ride and won't let her pay the fare. He's not angry with her or anything, so maybe this is a new Travis? Maybe he's got all the rage out of his system?
Return With The Elixir
As Travis drives off into the night, an ominous noise sounds and his eyes flash in the rear view mirror. That's really the last we see of him, but what does it mean? According to Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese, this is meant to indicate that he's still carrying his rage with him, surveying the city streets in anger.
Travis isn't better, then, and the fact that his act of rage was interpreted as an act of heroism makes it less likely that he'll get the treatment or maybe even the basic human connection that he needs. He hasn't brought an elixir of enlightened understanding with him out of his ordeal—he's brought an elixir of boiling rage, which will continue to heat until it overflows in an act of potentially worse violence. (At least that's one way of interpreting the ending).