Imagine, if you will, that Gotham City was a real place. Not the dark, art deco setting of Tim Burton's two Batman films, and definitely not the version we see in the Christopher Nolan films, which still does not seem to have anyone of import living in it if they don't come to the notice of Bruce Wayne or one of his nemeses. Instead, imagine Gotham in the early 1980s, going through the same troubles of a severe economic downturn as the rest of the United States.
A similar thing was done with Mega City One in Dredd. Unlike the earlier Judge Dredd, which tried hard to make it look as futuristic as possible, Dredd presented us with a city in which we could imagine living in, with all the good and bad that comes with it. This is the first thing I noticed about Joker; it provided us with a Gotham that looked lived in, with actual people and period-correct vehicles on the streets, rather than going for some strange sort of stylistic choice.
Almost everything revolves around the city, particularly in its news and entertainment. Until recent times many people in large cities lived, shopped, met and married and eventually died within the same few blocks. The city outside one's neighborhood was an unknown, and that was even more so for the world outside. Now, imagine what happens to a person, already living in this form of isolation, can't even fit in with the small part of the world in which he has to exist.
That is where Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) comes in. He works for a clown agency, for an unforgiving boss who doesn't care that he routinely receives abuse from both customers and coworkers, and tries to forge a life for himself despite having to deal with his own mental illness and taking care of his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). Any attempt to reach out to fellow human beings is rebuffed with mockery or outright violence.
Fleck enjoys being a clown and making people laugh, and aspires to be a stand-up comedian. Problem is, he has a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times, and both his illness and awkwardness around others makes it hard to even understand humor. When his life eventually takes a turn for the worse he suddenly finds himself in a situation that starts to let him open up to the world. Unfortunately, it's in a way that returns the violence and hatred it has shown toward him.
When three executives from Wayne Enterprises attempt to beat him up on a train, instead of enduring it like he has in the past, he uses a gun provided by a coworker to take them out. This spur-of-the-moment bit of self defense starts to wake up Fleck's self-confidence, as well as create a movement in Gotham against its upper class. The focus of much of their anger is Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who has just announced his run for mayor, but who also makes the mistake of calling anyone who would stand up against him or people of his status as clowns. The ensuing circumstances lead to Fleck waking up to the world, with consequences for him, for Gotham and, as can already be guessed, for the Waynes.
There are some familiar paths that need to be walked down in this origin story (we all know what triggers Bruce Wayne to later become Batman), but largely the cliches and expectations from the previous movies are avoided. While there is obvious anger toward Thomas Wayne, Arthur is more affected by mockery from a man he looked up to - late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who obtains a video tape of Arthur's attempt at an open mic night and publicly ridicules him.
Joaquin Phoenix succeeds in what he says he was trying to do - make the character unrelatable. He goes through some bad things, but there is nothing at any point that makes one sympathize with him. I believe that this is why Joker has been compared with Taxi Driver, as Travis Bickle was much the same way. The major difference is that Fleck eventually realizes what he is and becomes comfortable with it, while Bickle never has to. However, the portrayal of an isolated, mentally ill character is where the comparison with Taxi Driver stops. Martin Scorsese was making a statement about how becoming a hero or a villain is subjective, with the general public never having all the information to make up their own minds; Bickle just happened to kill the right people after an abortive attempt to kill the wrong one. There is no moral ambiguity from the viewer's point about Arthur Fleck being a hero; from the moment that Fleck shoots the men on the subway; he is not trying to impress a woman or go out in a big way, but in his own way trying to tell a joke that only he understands.
There are good performances all around, but the action never moves from being centered on Fleck. There are no scenes of others discussing him when he is not around, no background police procedural, and even the introduction of Bruce Wayne and Alfred are from Fleck's point of view. It also must be said that Thomas Wayne is not shown as being a saint, or beloved by the city. Although my gut feeling says that it is best that Joker remain a film of its own without a follow-up (as originally intended), it appears that a sequel is in the works, so it would be interesting to see if Bruce is treated in the same way as his dad. After all, in every Batman movie we only get to see things from one side, which is easy when the Joker is an outlandish supervillain rather than some guy that rides the bus home from work.
I did truly enjoy seeing a piece of modern movie making that reminded me of the non-horror side of cinema that I fell in love with a long time ago. It does have its problems here and there; occasionally a bit too much of our time creeps into it, especially when it comes to class warfare, but it doesn't overwhelm it with social justice themes that would have been anomalies for the time. The attention to detail is admirable, as a lot of dress and fashions in the early '80s (prior to Flashdance at least) didn't really differ too much from that of the late 1970s. This is meant to take place right before the big hair and more outlandish fashions started to appear. The clown masks and Fleck's sudden fame as a revolutionary are also quite reminiscent of V for Vendetta, but fit the idea of an enraged and downtrodden populace making a point about who the real clowns are.
Gotham itself is a combination of the deteriorating, barely functional metropolis that New York was at the time, combined with the corruption of Chicago and the brutality most associate with Philadelphia. It's the worst part of every large city east of the Mississippi combined into one garbage-laden, super-rat infested monstrosity.
The movie got some undeserved criticism for reveling in "toxic masculinity" and for its portrayal of gun violence, particularly since it came out not too long after some men identifying as incels committed violent acts. In truth, the violence here is used effectively, and shockingly, and not dwelt on or shown as a true solution to Fleck's problems. I will say that, as usual, mental illness being treated as a trigger for violence is way too much of a simplification, and it would be nice to see more sympathetic portrayals of mental illness in Hollywood other than quirky or scary. Still, it is nice to see that Joker did make some people angry since, if different groups on the left or right that think themselves gatekeepers for our culture get angry, then someone did their job right.
Todd Phillips, together with Joaquin Phoenix, brought us an effective psychological drama that also managed to breathe new life into comic book films, and at about a quarter of the price. More and more I am seeing these films creep back in, and it gives me hope that the 2020s, once we get over our hump this year, may provide us another burst of creativity like we had in the early 1990s.
Time: 122 minutes
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy, Robert De Niro
Director: Todd Phillips