Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
We’ve seen so many actors portray this role in live-action form since the first film featuring the character in 1966. The Joker was basically a psychotic gangster who liked to dress up in clown makeup. There have been disputes in the various depictions over whether the clown makeup was just makeup or some chemical deformation.
From Cesar Romero to Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger to Jared Leto, most depictions of the titular character aren’t without the depiction of Batman, the DC Comics hero for whom the clown criminal is the chief nemesis. Yet, the precedent was set with the TV series Gotham (2014), which was all about depicting the so-called Rogues Gallery, the list of criminals who fought Batman in the comics, but it didn’t have the Caped Crusader. It basically had Batman’s villains without Batman, including the titular character here, played in that series by Cameron Monaghan. That series though was told mostly through the point-of-view of the police trying to catch the criminals. This film has us solely in the p.o.v. of the criminal and nobody else.
Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line and Gladiator) stars as Arthur Fleck, a stand-up comedian living in Gotham, during what looks like the late 1960’s or early 1970’s New York City. It’s a time period where the city is dirty, grimy and ridden with crime, spurred by poverty and corruption. Arthur also is a professional clown. He’s paid to dress up as such to promote stores or entertain children. However, things aren’t going well for him.
He lives with his elderly and ailing mother in a terrible apartment building. His stand-up gigs are in a crummy, comedy club. He doesn’t make a lot of money, if any money at all. He has a medical condition, which causes him to laugh and cough uncontrollably. He’s receiving help from social services for his medical condition, which includes some unidentified mental illness. Whatever it is requires him to take several medications.
Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook and The Godfather: Part II) co-stars as Murray Franklin, a TV personality not unlike Johnny Carson. Murray even hosts a late-night talk show not unlike The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Murray is essentially Arthur’s ido. He’s the guy that Arthur admires the most. He mainly exists as an object of obsession for Arthur.
Yet, De Niro’s presence in this film is virtually an ironic one or a meta-reference. De Niro starred in the now classic, Martin Scorsese film, Taxi Driver (1976), which in obvious ways is what this film is trying to be. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips isn’t the first person to copy Scorsese or do a homage to Scorsese this year. The film Hustlers (2019) beat Phillips to the punch.
Unlike Hustlers though, this film is pushing ideas that perhaps speak to some message or themes that are violently more dark and disturbing. Hustlers was about socioeconomic struggles and sisterhood. This film is again more akin to Taxi Driver, as it tackles mental illness and city corruption, even on a political scale.
What separates this film from Taxi Driver and its protagonist, Travis Bickle, is that Arthur is less a vigilante and more of an insane villain. In a weird way, Travis Bickle can be seen more as a Batman-type. Arthur isn’t exactly in that league. Yet, this film seemingly wants to turn Arthur into a hero or a highly sympathetic person. It’s trying to do what Venom (2018) did, which is turn a comic book villain into a kind of hero, which would be fine if this narrative had gone the way it seems like it’s going to go.
If one is doing a film about mental illness, one should know that statistically a mentally ill person is more likely to hurt himself than anyone else. Yet, this film like so many films and TV shows posit mentally ill people do the opposite. Obviously, several cases, especially high-profile cases, have had possible mentally ill people commit acts of violence on others. The 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting where a man killed and wounded dozens of people at a Batman film-screening is one such example. Therefore, I understand the impulse to do a film like this and try to understand why a person would go down a violent road.
Hopefully, people will take away some understanding. Unfortunately, there are some things here that muddle such understanding. There’s also an impulse here to iconicize or mythicize this character as some kind of symbol of oppression that doesn’t quite jive. What we see is a movement form around Arthur’s violent actions. Arthur, in fact, murders three people through gun violence on a subway train and protests in support of him and his violence form. The film doesn’t justify these protests, riots and veritable movement that develop around Arthur or because of him.
It would be one thing if this film were drawing upon history. Back in the 1960’s, specifically 1967, the United States saw a series of riots in more than a dozen cities. The riots were due to tense race relations and conflicts resulting from which, typically spurred by government actions and inaction. Those riots in particular were occurring in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, so there was a lot of tension inherent. Riots occurred again in 1968 as a result of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Much like the Baltimore riots of 2015, it’s usually the death of an innocent, beloved or iconic figure that incites these riots. That isn’t the case here.
The protests here are due to the death of people or figures who aren’t innocent, beloved or iconic. The deaths are of three rich guys who are bullies and abusive. The protests are then directed at the wealthy in general and at a specific wealthy character here, but again Phillips’ film doesn’t justify it. Why would people riot or protest because three rich guys died. It doesn’t connect. Usually, there would be some grievance against the government that would fuel a riot. There was the Occupy Wall Street protests back in 2011, but the peopled involved would never rally around a murderous figure and take him as their representative.
Yet, by the end, it seems as if Arthur already has an instant cult around him. It would be like the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooter instantly forming fans who take to the streets en masse. Some have compared Arthur to Bernhard Goetz, a guy like Arthur who killed people on a subway train in seemingly self-defense. Arthur can make a better case for that than Goetz, but even still, Arthur throws away whatever Goetz-like support he could have had with later unwarranted murders. It makes no sense unless we are to assume the cult around him is simply imaginary.
After Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), many people complained about the depiction of the formative moment of Batman’s back-story, namely the death of his parents. The depiction is one that is hackneyed. Most people know it, but that doesn’t stop Phillips from depicting it once again. It comes with a bit of wrinkle though. This film suggests that Arthur, the man who becomes the chief nemesis of Batmanm, is the older brother to Bruce Wayne who is a pre-teen in this film but who is destined to become Batman. That would make Batman and the Joker siblings. The film, however, makes that statement not definitive. It could be true or it could not be. It just feels like a desperate attempt to connect this iteration to Batman in a way that feels unnecessary.
Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 1 min.