Where to begin? I can’t recommend this to most of my friends, for a myriad of reasons. For those that want to be entertained, the film falls short, delivering a dark shot of confused and depressing nihilism in place of diversion. For film history folks, this is early Scorsese revisited but with less focus and a lot less edge (and therefore, less interesting). For fanboys of the genre, it’s confusing; it’s really more of a simple origin story of a broken psychopath shoehorned awkwardly into the Batman/Joker construct. And for many other in love with the art of film, it’s less than the sum of its parts, even accounting for a captivating performance by one of our great American actors, Joaquin Phoenix.
The film is a smash financially, and it is so full of so many ideas about society, parents, abuse, law and order, etc., etc., etc., that there will be many a conversation about its suggested topics. Since few of those topics are presented with clarity (except that yes, abusing children is bad and leads to problems), the film functions more like an icebreaker question and conversation starter than any kind of definitive artistic expression that must be studied in and of itself.
As a film, it’s grim and muddy and violent and almost never stops moving, with camerawork that seems to reflect its central character’s wandering and increasingly sick mind. That’s a choice, and it joins well with Phoenix’s off-kilter performance. But the film has to back off from that subjective imbalanced movement occasionally for the sake of narrative sense and the viewer’s patience, and those moments of calmer medium-distance perspective contribute to a kind of jerky rhythm to the film that tends to enervate rather than energize it.
One of the topics of conversation for those so interested is that this is a period piece—New York, oops, I mean Gotham, in the 1970s. The movies shown as playing in one scene are both from 1981—Blow Out and Zorro the Gay Blade—but this is the same landscape as Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver with a twist (in more meanings than one) of his 1982 The King of Comedy. The homages or at least references to Taxi Driver are too numerous to mention (see the streets, the taxis, the city, and of course, De Niro). The King of Comedy moments are less important here, but having De Niro be in the “successful” role instead of being the loser adds a certain frisson. Of course there are Dark Knight/Heath Ledger references throughout, some subtle and others deliberately not so.
The Dark Knight gave us a Joker in median res, with little to no explanation of how he got this way, and a more unreliable narrator of his own story is probably impossible to find in all of cinema. That leaves open a world of conjecture and yes, mental chaos, which tends to work better in the Batman stories. Here, the poor guy is just a victim of yes, society to a point (does everyone—adults and children—default to knocking people to the ground and then kicking them relentlessly when they get angry?), but mostly of a deeply mentally disturbed mother who created an environment of abuse. Plus he has no dad, found out that the dad he temporarily thought he had wasn’t, and he’s adopted. Ultimately, Arthur Fleck (worst name ever) is simply the product of his upbringing. Wherever he seems to have some agency, the film suggests that it is actually his free-floating mental illness that causes him to make what his mother might call “poor choices.” It’s not really him, and not really society. The film approaches the substance and development of his twisted character in a similar manner to how Phoenix/Joker stops to dance in the bathroom and elsewhere—fascinating but bewildering.
As committed as JP is to the role—and the commitment is total—this performance won’t overshadow Ledger’s character and work in The Dark Knight for two reasons. One is the rather pedestrian explanation of how Fleck got to be Joker; Ledger’s Joker insists that there is no logical explanation for him. The other reason is context. Joker as the main character is adrift if not connected to Batman, and functions better as a supporting character with Batman front and center. As great as Ledger was, and Phoenix is, the character of the Joker seems more like a spice that enhances the dish than the main ingredient, where it doesn’t quite work, and needs too many other ingredients to try to make a recognizable meal of it. Yes, there is a bit ‘o Batman here, but it doesn’t provide any kind of real balance to the Joker, and is rightly controversial in its inclusion in this story; it seems tacked on to somehow force this film into the DC canon.
Time will tell this film’s worth beyond the central performance and its providing a prosaic explanation for one of the least prosaic characters in comics and the films based on them. The current question is why—beyond brilliant marketing—this film is striking such a chord. Perhaps that will provide the film’s biggest shudder of all.