Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Joker, Todd Phillips’ tensely anticipated origin story of the Batman villain that grossed $96 million in its first weekend, self-consciously presents as Taxi Driver meets The King of Comedy, and a kind of atavistic essay on the perils of inequality and the dominance of the one percent. Like many high-concept films, however, the whole is far less than the sum of its parts, and inevitably derivative. Set in the still-analog 1980s, Gotham City is a clichéd sewer seemingly conjured from CliffsNotes for The Bonfire of the Vanities, patrolled by wilding teenagers, several of whom beat clown-for-hire, aspiring stand-up comic, and classical downtrodden misfit Arthur Fleck to a pulp. He fortuitously conjures a gun and goes Bernhard Goetz on three drunken masters of the universe misbehaving in the subway, becoming an anonymous folk hero to the have-nots and a spur to the three boors’ billionaire employer Thomas Wayne – father of Bruce – to run for mayor and clean up the city. Negative reinforcement of various types turn Gotham into Hell and Fleck into Joker, its presumptive Lucifer.
The hype has it that the film is an irresponsible incitement to violence. Certainly it features fine actors – Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Bill Camp as well as Joaquin Phoenix in the title role – trying hard to make it that compelling. But the concatenation of convenient artifices and obvious ironies that make up the plot – Arthur has a clinical syndrome that makes him laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times; his bedeviled mother was once Thomas Wayne’s maid and lover; a terrified dwarf can’t reach the chain lock on a door to escape Arthur’s wrath – seem more likely to induce eye-rolls than inspire anger. Incongruous ingredients like the Scorsese-esque soundtrack and balletic quasi-soliloquies only make the movie seem desperate to be seen as art as opposed to mere contrivance.
That the film is dull and cynically manipulative is not terribly surprising; many bad movies are. What seems particularly perverse is the way it gratuitously and without warrant demonizes the resistance. The masses don clown masks as tribute and wreak violent havoc throughout the city in solidarity with an evidently psychotic murderer. The message is apparently that the underclass will lay bloody siege to its oppressors as a matter of human nature if society keeps trending the way it has been, which skews the movie’s moral balance heavily in favor of white privilege. Arthur’s tormentors are mainly working-class. He misconstrues Wayne, who, though callous and elitist, is perhaps not as bad as he first appears. And Arthur assassinates a beloved and fundamentally harmless middle-class icon – he’s just annoyingly smug – whose main sin is to poke fun at him. This state of affairs is jarring because it is, especially now, so starkly counterfactual. By increasingly unassailable consensus, the real bad guys are the emerging plutocracy and its enablers.
For a far more inventive, sophisticated, and searching take on class antagonism, see Bong Joon-ho’s exquisitely black comedy Parasite, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Even if you want to see Joaquin Phoenix himself as a poignantly violent, maladjusted anti-hero, Joker is the wrong movie. The right one is Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, based on Jonathan Ames’s crafty pulp-style novella, which came and went quietly last year after a strong screening at Cannes, where Phoenix won best actor and Ramsay best screenplay. A cinematic minimalist, Ramsay provides no exposition, immediately thrusting the audience into the lethal activities of a “hired gun” named Joe, always from his point of view. Fragmentary flashbacks provide only a diaphanous backstory. Joe is a PTSD-stricken ex-Marine who, like Arthur Fleck, lives with his declining mother, but in Queens. He was an FBI agent until he went AWOL over an operation in which the perpetrators had intentionally asphyxiated thirty Chinese girls in a truck. He is tentatively suicidal, and when he succumbs to bad vibes and wraps his head in a plastic bag as he had as a battered child, he hears a voice say, It’s all right, you can go, you were never really here. Now, for a fee, he rescues underage girls from the sex trade, doingwhat he can to punish the worst and save the weakest. However savagely, he acts with overarching principle on particular facts, not on the basis of prejudged hatred. A retired New York state trooper named McCleary (John Doman, suitably grizzled) arranges his assignments and thanks him for his service.
Joe’s new client is State Senator Votto, whose thirteen-year old daughter Nina has gone missing after meeting a man online and is now part of a child prostitute stable. The senator specifically asks Joe to be brutal, which is not a problem as his weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer. It’s as though he is trying to force catharsis by taking maximum physical responsibility for killing. The tragedy is not that he is compelled to take life – his victims may deserve what they get – but that his strategy for fixing what’s wrong is so inadequate. In a twisted variation on “Rumpelstiltskin,” it turns out Lisa’s prostitution was the agreed price exacted by a sociopathic, short-eyed mob boss to bankroll Votto’s campaign. After Joe rescues her, Votto rolls on McCleary, who, after he’s tortured, rolls on Joe; then McCleary is slain. The motivation of revenge gives Joe a new lease on life. But the slime trail doesn’t end with crooked cops, the mob, and dead friends. The girl turns out to be the favorite sex partner of Governor Williams, the powerful incumbent on whose ticket Votto is running.
Phoenix’s Joe is less confused and more resigned than Travis Bickle or Arthur Fleck. Whereas Fleck is ostentatiously emaciated, Joe is beefy, scarred, and full-bearded, in baggy jeans, a hoodie, and a Carhartt vest. Outfitted for existential descent, he’s just marking time before he dies. In his mother’s kitchen, Joe gut-shoots one of the bent cops who killed her. Rasping out his sins under Joe’s interrogation, first merciless and then gentler, the radio plays. Albert Hammond’s “The Air That I Breathe” segues to Charlene’s bathetic 1977 classic “I’ve Never Been to Me.” Joe tenderly holds the cop’s hand and sings along with him – “I’ve been to paradise but I’ve never been to me” – until he dies, ready to join him but for a few essential errands. It’s a dementedly touching moment.
For Joe, life really is the procrastination of death. He tracks Nina and her captors to a forbidding mansion, but in the event she has saved herself, cutting the governor’s throat with a straight razor. She too is homicidal, but unperturbed. In the final scene, a shattered Joe imagines that he blows his brains out at a sunny diner to which he has taken Nina. Despite his will to action, he’s ultimately powerless against evil with superior resources and connections. But maybe he’s merely witnessing the extinguishment of the last vestige of a chivalric worldview: the female as victim. The waitress, her face spattered with blood, is chirpily oblivious, leaving his corpse a gory check with a blithe “Have a nice day.” Joe for the moment gives up on being dead, rejoining Nina, now cheerful, who indeed says it’s a beautiful day. She has become her own defender, and for now he will follow her. Neither one need be a nihilist.
Joker, directed and co-written by Todd Phillips, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.
You Were Never Really Here, directed and written by Lynne Ramsay, distributed by Amazon Studios.
Parasite, directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho, distributed by NEON.