Every so often I long for movies from the 70s. True, when it comes to special effects and dynamic camerawork, they really cannot hold a candle to modern films. And there is a kind of slick glossiness to movies from the 80s onward that makes them somehow more visually appealing. But films from the 70s didn’t shy away from the darker and more complex elements of human society, and they were not afraid to deny audiences clean and happy endings.
Todd Phillips’ masterpiece, Joker, feels like a movie from a different era. It is set, it appears, in 1981, but there is a 70s quality that permeates this movie. And, like the best films from that decade, it is a complicated work, designed to leave the audience disturbed.
There are some mild spoilers in this review, I guess I should warn you about that. I will not give everything away. But if you haven’t figured out by now that Joker is the story of how a man, Arthur Fleck, becomes the legendary villain, then you must not know much about the film at all.
Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of a lifetime in the title role. And this is his movie, no two ways about it. He is in every scene, and frequently in close up. Arthur Fleck is a clown for hire, and an aspiring stand up comic, who lives with his ailing mother in a run down apartment building. His life is one of constant degradation and disappointment. This is not a pleasant film, and the camerawork helps to convey that. Viewing the protagonist in such an intimate way, with the camera closer than one might have desired, just adds to the discomfort, and the oppressive nature of the story.
Arthur is mentally ill, but is on medications, and regularly visits with psychiatrists and social workers, until cuts to the city’s budget removes those supports from his life. There is no question that he is trying his hardest to be the person that society demands, and this is effectively visualized by the exhausting climbs he makes up the long, steep stairway to reach his apartment.
But try as he might, Arthur is on a doomed trajectory. The music score never lets one forget where this film is going. It is as oppressive and ominous as the close up camerawork. And I couldn’t help but notice that, despite the many and varied forms of transportation that Arthur is on during the course of the film, subways, buses, cars, and ambulances, never once is he in the position of being able to control their direction. He is being carried along against his will to an inevitable destiny.
This movie is somewhat an inversion of the Batman legend. A lot of that deals with the portrayal of Thomas Wayne. Brett Cullen does not play the Wayne patriarch as the quasi-saint we recall from Batman Beyond. Here, Thomas Wayne is the personification of the 1%, a callous billionaire seeking political office. He never seems to care about the lives and needs of Gotham’s many suffering citizens, though. We don’t get to see an awful lot about his political campaign, but it clearly caters to the upper class, with the bulk of Gotham’s population being dismissed as clowns.
And while Wayne and his family do leave a movie theatre playing Zorro, the version they were attending was Zorro, the Gay Blade, a 1981 comedy starring George Hamilton, which turned the legendary hero into an effeminate source of mockery. Hardly the kind of movie that would serve to inspire Batman.
There are a few other touches from the comic books. One of the doctors at Arkham Asylum is Benjamin Stoner, a minor character from the Dr Fate miniseries from 1987, who abused the patients under his care. But often the references seem to be designed to make the audience recall events that play out quite differently in the movie. The Joker kissing a Dr Ruth-type character on a tv talk show does not go in the direction it did in Batman – The Dark Knight Returns, nor does the discussion of a bank robbery lead to anything like the opening sequence of The Dark Knight.
Robert De Niro plays the tv talk show host, a character clearly based on Johnny Carson. But this also seems to be an inversion of his role in the movie The King of Comedy. Of course, there is a natural comparison of this movie with Taxi Driver, and DeNiro’s presence makes that inescapable. But I also found myself thinking of another bleak film from the 70s, The Day of the Locust, with Burgess Meredith’s pained laughing, and the riotous conclusion.
This is not the kind of movie that would fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is not a theme park ride. Joker is a much darker, much heavier, and much better made film. And one that will stay with the viewer long afterwards.