Todd Phillips’s Joker film arrives amid a flurry of mild controversy. At least, mild compared with the great cinematic controversies of yesteryear (this is hardly The Passion of the Christ or A Clockwork Orange). Yes, there has been some concern, largely in the US, over whether this film makes a hero out of a villain and glorifies violence, but the cynical part of me can’t help but wonder whether the studio marketing department is behind all the fuss. After all, what better way to get people to see a film than by telling them in finger-wagging terms that they “shouldn’t” because it is “dangerous”?
Well, no matter. The film itself is certainly well-acted and directed, featuring a very good central performance by Joaquin Phoenix. He’s been tipped for Oscar success, although quite honestly, I’d rather he’d won a few years back for his more subtle performance in The Master. Here the role is much more awards-bait – physically demonstrative, scenery chewing, and yes, it features extreme weight loss (weight loss or gain being a “committed acting” trope oft rewarded by the Academy).
The story traces a Joker origin story which has nothing to do with what appears in the Batman comics. Liberties are taken, some of which are quite interesting, and for the most part they work. In 1970s New York – sorry, Gotham – we’re introduced to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a downtrodden man who lives with his mother in a shoddy apartment building at the edge of impoverishment. He has a slightly Norman Bates-ish relationship with his mother, and by day he works in paid clown gigs. However, an unfortunate neurological condition where he laughs at inappropriate moments without being able to help it has made him a social outcast. Following a period of incarceration in a mental hospital, he is seeing a social worker, and is already on a lot of medication, but nothing seems to be helping as, in his own words, “all I have are negative thoughts”.
Arthur Fleck’s ambition is to be a stand-up comedian, despite clearly lacking the talent. However, he pushes ahead in an alarmingly delusional and narcissistic manner that echoes Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. In fact, Scorsese is a key touchstone throughout, with Taxi Driver being another obvious inspiration (particularly in the way he stalks a single mother who lives a few doors away from him in his apartment block). Robert De Niro – the star of both afore-mentioned films – even has a role as a TV talk show host that Fleck idolises, again, echoing the obsession at the heart of The King of Comedy.
Those who have seen Taxi Driver will know what to expect. This is no comic book adventure, but a bleak journey into misery, madness, and violence, seasoned by very occasional moments of dark humour. It is compelling, but not as singular as Scorsese’s classics, nor as bitingly insightful, despite one interesting satirical moment in the finale. Said moment appears to swipe at current PC/woke culture’s sanctimonious, for-your-own-good obsession with legislating what is and isn’t funny. Perhaps this explains to a degree why Phillips (a former comedy director best known for The Hangover) was attracted to this subject, using the Joker to lash out at what he sees as censorship of what is, after all, subjective.
Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Regarding accusations that the film makes a hero of a villain, I think that is most emphatically not the case. Yes, we are given reasons for Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the Joker, and some of the social issues in the background do reflect modern concerns about society creating its own demons, but the violence when it arrives is absolutely horrific. In the same way that anyone who cheered Travis Bickle’s violent rampage at the end of Taxi Driver monumentally missed the point, those who think Joker somehow praises “angry white man” or “incel” culture have demonstrated the same inability to tell the difference between depicting something and endorsing something. Of course, I will concede it is possible for someone to grossly misread the film in that way, but I think you’d have to be mentally ill in the first place.
When it comes to portrayal of violence in films and the responsibility of filmmakers, these concerns are nothing new. We’ve had these arguments before, with much greater vigour, particularly with the great film controversies of the 1970s. No doubt we’ll have them again. In the meantime, for my money Joker is a good, rather than great piece of work; well-directed, with an agreeably retro feel (the old Warner Brothers logo is a nice touch), and featuring a fine central performance, but a lesser work compared with the Scorsese films it clearly idolises.