The edgelord with 300 Twitter followers. The skinny kid you knew back in college who’d get drunk at parties and insist on sitting with his feet dangling over the window ledge. The millionaire comic who complains about there being no takers for his provocative jokes. The shadow version of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant in which the high school shooters are mistreated, misunderstood boys.
Joker is all these things, and a few more. It was the Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival. It’s being monitored as a potential instigator of gun violence. It’s infuriating and deeply disturbing, a sneer that’s also an animal howl of pain.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is an aspiring stand-up who works as a professional clown, performing on street corners and at children’s hospitals. His shifty manner and a verbal tic – a high, cackling laugh he can’t control – have reduced his daily existence to a series of escalating humiliations. Fleck (how easily the noun attaches itself to dirt, or blood) has no friends, or prospects, or talent. He’s prone to tremendous rage and tremendous self-pity – a flammable combination even without his mental health issues and the gun a coworker casually hands him.
Arthur lives with his mother, who once worked for billionaire Thomas Wayne and still believes he’ll lift them out of their sad lives (a scene with young Bruce is all the fan service this film provides). But Wayne is more concerned with his mayoral run, which hinges on a promise to rid Gotham City (a stand-in for New Jersey) of poverty and crime. If an unhinged loner obsessed with a politician running for office sounds like another film you know, well, that’s not the only Taxi Driver reference in Joker. The Gotham of this film, set in 1981, is a hellscape resembling Scorsese’s '70s New York, all garbage and strip bars and despair. Arthur has the same inarticulate anger as Travis Bickle; both find purpose in violent action. But Travis’ violence finds a specific target, whereas Arthur is lashing out against a society that he feels deserves it.
Does the film agree with him? Joker doesn’t seem in control of this crucial detail. Director Todd Phillips would probably argue that his film is a critique of gun control in America, that it demonstrates how even the mentally ill have always been able to easily access firearms. Yet, there’s so much justification provided for Arthur’s rage that when it explodes in a shocking scene on the subway, we’re clearly meant to explode with it, to cheer the transformation of put-on clown into potent Joker. The critique sits uneasily with the catharsis, as we see again when another brutal bout of violence is alleviated by a comic ending.
Phillips is best known as the director of Old School and the Hangover trilogy. Apart from 2016's War Dogs, he’s shown little inclination towards dramatic material till now, which might be why, instead of working out his own aesthetic for this film, he simply borrows Scorsese’s. The Taxi Driver moments feel less like tributes than wholesale lifts, from Arthur’s rants about a filthy, immoral city to his fooling around, gaunt and shirtless, with a loaded gun in his home. Scorsese’s The King of Comedy casts a similarly long shadow, with Arthur obsessed, as Robert De Niro’s aspiring showbiz-hopeful was, with a talk show host. Both films have the central character admit to perpetrating a crime on live TV. And the host in Phillips’ film is played – holy metanarrative, Batman! – by De Niro.
Between the griminess of Lawrence Sher’s photography and Hildur Guðnadóttir sawing violins, Joker is impressively queasy for a studio film. Phoenix’s turn, too, is anti-beauty: greasy hair, twitchy manner, nails-on-blackboard laugh. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s canonized like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, his pronouncements printed on T-shirts. Ledger’s Joker had wit and invention, whereas Phoenix’s creation is so pitiable and unappealing that anyone proclaiming themselves a fan might consider asking themselves what exactly it is they’re admiring.
“I just hope my death makes more sense than my life," Arthur tells a social services employee. Later, he complains: “I don’t think you ever really hear me." You could string together a dozen of his lines and get a suicide note, or something more sinister. “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed," he says. “But I do, and people are starting to notice." This is mass-shooter language.
This review appeared in Mint.