This is one of my few film reviews that is actually topical, so it’s worth noting here that this contains major spoilers for Joker and I would recommend watching that film before reading this.
Ok, so this is an interesting one. It’s worth prefacing a few things. The first is that in terms of comic books, I’m not particularly knowledgeable. Yes, I’ve seen The Dark Knight, but apart from that my exposure to the character of the Joker is fairly limited. The second is that the reason I decided to watch this at all was because of the enormous amounts of public attention it has been getting (that I’m now feeding into, at least in a small way). I’ve been told that this is a great film, an important film, an awful film, a morally reprehensible one etc. When a film is this controversial, it’s usually bound to at least be interesting.
The good news is that Todd Phillip’s Joker is indeed a good film. It’s technically well made, centres around a pretty stunning leading performance and its constant allusions to better films (most notably Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, as well as Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here) pretty successfully create an illusion of importance. The problem is that it’s never much more than good. It seems to know what other great films are, but not what makes them great. Its beauty is skin deep and occasionally the lack of anything beneath the surface veers into the problematic. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s first take a look at the film itself.
Joker is a film about Arthur Fleck, a struggling stand-up comedian and clown-for-hire in early 1980s Gotham City, a clear New York parallel. Fleck’s problems start to pile up after a pretty tragic week in his life; he’s beaten up twice, fired from his job, learns he’s adopted and that his mother is mentally ill, is made fun of on a talk show and comes to the realisation that his new girlfriend is a figment of his imagination. This eventually leads to him snapping and committing a series of violent crimes starting with the killing of three businessmen on the Gotham subway and ending with the murder of a talk show host on live TV.
As an origin story for a super-villain, it’s all standard fare. Bad things happen, no one’s there to help, so our villain starts to lash out. Hurt people hurt people. Where Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver expand this is to add an underlying level of class warfare to Fleck’s tragedies. Fleck’s murderous actions end up inspiring a whole protest movement of lower-class citizens uprising against an uncaring upper-class, personified here by Thomas Wayne. As one newspaper headline unsubtly puts it; ‘Kill the Rich: A New Movement?” Fleck’s mental illness and living conditions are constantly belittled by people richer than him; the funding for his mental health program is cut by the city, Thomas Wayne literally punches him when he asks for help and the talk show host Murray Franklin belittles him on his show. Here, then, the Joker becomes not simply the rouge agent of chaos he is in The Dark Knight, but a kind of working class anti-hero, able to finally step up against the people who have made his life a continued hell. This is a Batman film that brings into question the idea of Batman as a rich billionaire who comes from a family that has done nothing but create the problems which drive people to desperation. For a while, this certainly seems like the point of Joker, and it’s an admirable one.
There is, of course, a ‘however’. Joker is, after all, a film about the Joker – and the Joker is a bad guy. As if scared to properly take a stand, Phillips has to make sure that Fleck reminds us, in a monologue near the end of the film, that he is not political. Despite inspiring a political movement, he repeatedly claims himself to be an apolitical figure. I’m not too sure as to the intent behind this, but I can think of a few ideas. One is to make sure we dislike the character that Phillips has otherwise spent some time making sympathetic. Were he taking a political stand we might not agree with his murderous actions, but we may at least be able to see why he did them. But Phillips says ‘no’ – he’s not making a point, he’s just doing it because he’s crazy. He’s the Joker, right? The problem comes in that this feels antithetical to the entire previous two hours. In The Dark Knight, the Joker does feel like just some crazy murderous bastard. In fact, his multiple ‘do you wanna know how I got these scars’ monologues feel like they’re poking fun at the idea that the Joker was born from some kind of tragic backstory. Joker gives him a literal tragic backstory and then remembers at the last minute that hey, this is the Joker – he’s not supposed to have motivations, and so undoes everything it has been building up.
So let’s quickly see how this idea can be done right. Joker is extremely upfront about its influences, to the extent that it sometimes feels like it’s wearing them as clown paint. The two most obvious are Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s two films about downtrodden men resorting to crimes in order to strike back against a society that has failed them. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver is by no means a wholly sympathetic character, but like Fleck he has some elements of sympathy to him; he’s lonely – not just ordinarily lonely, but incredibly, painfully lonely. Scorsese has said that the most important shot in Taxi Driver is when the camera moves away from Travis talking to Betsy on the phone; unable to stand looking at his rejection. For Scorsese, that rejection is more painful than any of the violence in the film, which is filmed in slow-motion so that the audience can see it more.
So we’re sympathetic to Travis’ pain, but that doesn’t mean he’s a character that should be looked up to. Scorsese isn’t afraid to show Travis’ racism, or that Travis, while a victim of the city’s indifference, is just one small cog in that machine. Around him people get on with their equally miserable lives, able to restrain from the kind of violence that Travis longs of committing. Scorsese called the film his first feminist film, saying that it ‘takes macho to its logical conclusion.’ I couldn’t imagine Phillips saying that about Joker because it feels less thought through. Taxi Driver is a subtler character study; we can appreciate his struggle without condoning his actions. In the end of Taxi Driver, Travis manages to channel the violence to some sort of positive end, and while the veracity of the final scenes can be called into question, he is at least allowed an emotional payoff that grants him some small closure.
The fundamental misunderstanding that Joker makes is in directing the city’s problems entirely at Arthur. Gotham never feels real because it feels too much like a city that exists to target our protagonist. The only thing we hear about that doesn’t directly affect Arthur is the garbage problem and the ‘super rats’ that spring from it. Everything else is connected to him in some way – including Thomas Wayne. The subplot regarding Fleck’s confused heritage and his mother’s mental illness is one that I think damages the film. It’s incredibly, almost torturously cruel to Arthur, but also puts him into contact with Wayne, who should have remained a background figure. The moment Wayne recognises and punches Arthur is the moment the film stops becoming about a man ignored by an indifferent society and becomes about a man actively pursued by a society that knows and hates him.
If Taxi Driver is the film’s character touchpoint, then King of Comedy is its plot touchpoint, with Robert DeNiro playing the inverse character to his role in that film as struggling stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin. The King of Comedy’s raison d’etre, is, as described by Roger Ebert, a film about ‘the postponement of pain.’ It’s a film about mainly two people, a man and a woman, who find it impossible to get what they want. There is no release from their struggle – even after Pupkin resorts to kidnapping so that he can end up on TV, the film pivots to a scene after he’s released from jail and finally he has everything – all the fame in the world. But in a film where many of the scenes are dream sequences, Scorsese forces us to question the reality of that final moment, and so pulls away any sense of satisfaction from the audience and the characters. Does he get what he wants? We’ll never really know. We’ll never have that satisfaction, and neither will Pupkin.
Once again, Joker misses the point. This isn’t, let me be clear, to say that by cribbing so heavily from Scorsese’s playbook, that he needs to be beholden to Scorsese’s every idea. But I think that what it changes doesn’t help the film at all. Fleck gets his way completely by the end of Joker – the world falls to shit around him just as he wanted it to. What point does this serve though? In King of Comedy, Scorsese is attempting to highlight the pathetic nature of Pupkin’s existence by restricting to the audience the same gratification that he’s unable to attain his whole life. In Joker, we share in Fleck’s catharsis, but to what end? I think this harkens back to the problem I was talking about with regards to how Phillips misreads Taxi Driver; we’re too on the side of the Joker in Joker. He’s only an anti-hero in that we (hopefully) think that murder is bad. In all other ways the film treats him as a hero.
So I hope I’ve proven that Joker is somewhat shallow when it comes to its central character. It wants it both ways; it wants the chaotic villain of The Dark Knight and the sympathetic criminals of Scorsese’s films. It’s obvious that the two don’t work together, however, and whenever the film tries to lean into one or the other it gets it wrong. You can’t ape Ledger’s Joker if you give him a backstory and you can’t be Travis Bickle if you’re too scared to inject some unsavoury elements into his character.
Before I go, though, I’d like to echo a point I read in Richard Brody’s brilliant critique of the film. It’s not simply empty in its character depiction; it’s empty in its politics as well. I mentioned that stripping the Joker of his political motivations doesn’t work in a film so heavily imbued with political imagery, but it goes deeper than that. I’ll give a long quote here from Brody;
“[Joker] draws its incidents and its affect parasitically from real-world events that were both the product and the cause of racist discourse and attitudes and gave rise to real-world racist outcomes of enduring, even historic, gravity. The central events of “Joker” (and I’ll try to allude to them sidelong, to avoid spoilers) are suggested by other real-world events, but here, too, Phillips voids them of their discourse and their substance. What results is more than the strenuous effort to contrive a story with resonant incidents and alluring details; “Joker” reflects political cowardice on the part of a filmmaker, and perhaps of a studio, in emptying out the specifics of the city’s modern history and current American politics so that the movie can be released as mere entertainment to viewers who are exasperated with the idea of movies being discussed in political terms—i.e., to Republicans.”
It’s worth saying here that I still found Joker to be an entertaining film. As I mentioned in my introduction, it’s technically proficient and Joaquin Phoenix is on usual form here – twisting and turning his body in a similar way to his performance as Freddie Quell in The Master. But it suggests at so much more beneath the surface, causally tossing out references to more thoughtful films in order to hint that if you look further, you might find some ideas of value – some interesting talking points. As yet, I have not.
I’ve been going through some big life changes so my Dual Destinies review has been quite majorly delayed. I hope I can put out some smaller reviews like this in the meanwhile. I’ve wanted to talk about King of Comedy for some time, so it’s good to be able to do so, even in this context. As always, be sure to follow me on twitter and support me on patreon. Thanks for reading!