This is pretty good remake of Taxi Driver. It’s less a movie in its own right and more a mashup of better films from the 70’s and 80’s. It is carried through by a fully immersive performance from Joaquin Phoenix. It has some moments of its own, and it is incredibly well shot. But it never really rises above homage.
Joker is ostensibly based on the DC Comics characters and tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a man with deep issues and a delusion dream of becoming a standup comic. In the opening scenes he is beaten and humiliated by a bunch of cruel kids. He is setup by a coworker and fired from his job. He is then beaten again by three guys on a subway train. The beatings never really stop in this movie. The beatings are either mental or physical or both. He is made fun of on TV for his lousy stand up. He is undermined by those who are supposed to help him. He is verbally assaulted by those around him. He is a guy who is tortured by the world and ground into the dirt until he lashes out. After all the violence and brutality what does all this torture lead to? What message does the film seek to deliver? What can be found at the end of all this bad? Not much.
Avoiding spoilers, the films themes are frustratingly absent. Fleck commits horrible crimes, but the crimes are always justified by the filmmakers. He kills three people early on, but they were jerks. So it’s okay. He murders someone close to him, but they lied to him. So that’s fine. He kills the guys who betrayed him. That makes it good and satisfying for the audience. In this same way every terrible crime he commits is made to feel like it is in someway justified. Now Fleck is never outright rewarded for his crimes, but he is never punished either. The movie isn’t really saying that murder is justified, but it isn’t saying it’s not justified either. In the same way Fleck is a man who begins the movie on the edge. He is barely getting by with his various mental illnesses. The support system in place for him is taken away by a lack of funding. However, this isn’t what drives him to killing and madness. He begins killing before he loses his support, and he chooses to throw away his pills and embrace the violence before he loses help. It’s not a condemnation of an indifferent system if he chooses to do bad things regardless of the system.
There is a lot of political talk surrounding this movie. Does it support violence? Does it promote mass shooters? Is it just an intel fantasy? The problem is the film could be about any of these things because it’s themes are muddled to the point of being nonexistent. When there is no theme, people insert their own. If you see the film, you can insert your own reading and take what you want from it.
The film is dark, violent, and mean spirited. It is however beautifully shot. The cinematography here is fantastic. The film creates a gritty yet heightened world. It’s deeply realistic, yet it is full of vivid colors and expressionistic takes on the lighting and look. It makes the stairs Fleck climbs to get home from work look like the tallest mountain anyone could climb, yet makes those same stairs look like a neon playground when Fleck finally descends into full Joker madness.
The biggest draw the film has is the performance by Joaquin Phoenix. He throws himself headfirst into this role. He contorts and tortures his body in order to portray this man’s madness. Unfortunately he isn’t given a the guidance a performance like this needs. There is an extended scene in which he dances in a bathroom after killing some people. The scene goes on and on. He dances and dances and dances, and the whole film screeches to a halt so he can have this endless dance. It doesn’t serve a narrative function. It isn’t about him celebrating his murders. He seems to enter a trance and just dance. A lot of his performance feels like this. Just him acting for the sake of acting. It’s a performance with a capital”P.” Whether that’s good or bad will entirely depend on how much you enjoy it.
It’s not fair to compare a film to an earlier film, especially a classic like Taxi Driver. However this film is so deeply entwined with that film. It’s wears its comparisons on its sleeve. It borrows the color palette, the story structure, and the isolated antihero nature of that film. It even borrows that film’s star. Robert De Niro shows up for a small role here. The movie is ostensibly about the comic book character Joker, from Batman. Aside from a few oblique references to the Wayne family and one request to be called Joker, the movie has nothing to do with comics. It feels so much more like a remake of Taxi Driver than anything else it could be.
I didn’t like the movie. I found it predictable and muddled. What’s worse is I kind of found it forgettable. There aren’t a lot of moments that stick with me. There aren’t any surprises. The plot twists and “surprises” are pretty clearly telegraphed from the outset. It doesn’t bring anything really new to the table. I don’t think it’s trying to glorify violence, but it’s not doing anything to condemn it either. It’s not my cup of tea. I guess I’d give it a letter grade of a B- for its muddled story telling and predictability. Maybe it’ll work for other people. There’s nothing technically wrong with it. It just doesn’t work in my opinion.