Phoenix sits pensively and incredibly uncomfortable on Jimmy Kimmel’s couch, zipped up in a jumper, with a shirt and tie that looks like it has an emergency exit button labelled ‘In case of intense questioning.’ The interview doesn’t exactly go off without a hitch, the two men sparking off each other’s personal version of humour. Kimmel’s approach is brash and he pushes the notoriously private star, at one point bringing up Phoenix’s break-dancing hobby from his childhood. Kimmel and the studio audience snigger at the revelation, while the star of Joker sinks further into his chair, muttering in quiet desperation, ‘You’re making fun of it, but it was serious for me.’
He didn’t mean to, but this week Phoenix showed us in real life and on film, how someone on the brink just about exists in the world, while the rest of us laugh it off. That’s what Joker really speaks to; the frightening prospect that you and me as people of society, unwittingly drive individuals closer to the edge. The parallels with Martin Scorsese’s seminal film, Taxi Driver (1976) are fascinating, finally another film that isn’t afraid to face the music with a gripping portrayal of the anti-hero. Robert De Niro starred as a troubled Vietnam veteran who returned from a make believe land of war to an open sewer – New York City. In Joker, Phoenix plays a professional clown, struggling with his dream to become a stand-up comedian. His run of bad luck is crippling, and he can’t understand how society still expects you to ‘put on a happy face.’ It’s this struggle, against the city, the Administration and society that leads to a crystallization of these characters, so they can finally make sense of a world where they feel they do not belong.
Taxi Driver and Joker
For me, seeing Joker is like watching The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver on repeat, one after the other. It’s a tapestry that weaves in every on-screen, mental struggle we’ve seen, given that we rarely see this menacing spiral into madness. In Taxi Driver, De Niro played Travis Bickle, whose self-imposed exile in his bright, lucid yellow Manhattan cab remains a marker for the deeply flawed and self-destructive anti-hero. Insidiously and quite subtly, Bickle descends into insanity, guarded only by De Niro’s charming surface interactions. He deftly exemplifies the ease with which a deeply troubled and tortured individual can survive in the world unbeknownst to those around him. Just like De Niro, Phoenix masterfully toes the line between outwardly showcasing his innocent, boyish charm as a professional clown, all the while hiding his true, malicious intentions to selfishly deploy harm in favour of his own warped perception of the Greater Good. His crippling sense of isolation accelerates his mental disintegration, until a new persona and agenda is created to rationalize his completely irrational and self-destructive thoughts.
Just like Taxi Driver, who plans to assassinate a presidential candidate, Joker becomes obsessed with Thomas Wayne, a candidate who is running for the Mayor’s office. For Joker, this figure in the upper echelons of society, is to blame for his troubles and epitomizes the sordidness and filth he sees around him. As Joker takes care of his ailing mother we understand the lack of a father figure. It’s like the administration acts as an absentee, surrogate father that has never cared for him. In the end, the Joker rationalizes his new persona as a product of an Administration that simply doesn’t give a damn.
Phoenix embodies this narcissistic, self-destructive character, walking with a pronounced, jagged step, making room for his clown shoes, even when he’s not wearing them. His performance is devastatingly powerful, internalizing the ugliness of the Joker mentality to such a realistic degree. His gradual descent into madness allows Phoenix more room to play with, as we witness the crystallization process of a deeply troubled citizen of Gotham into a manic character that stands up against everything that has made him feel like he didn’t exist.
Todd Phillips has proved to be a very capable filmmaker, injecting his film with gorgeous art house shots and a ravishingly desperate colour palette. He infuses Gotham’s equivalent of The Bronx neighborhood, with dirty primary colours, as if someone forgot to give the circus tent a wash and tumble dry. That’s Life is the soundtrack, a haunting, peppy Sinatra song that makes the subject matter more disturbing. It’s used in a very Lynchian way, similar to how Roy Orbison’s jazzy lullaby, ‘In Dreams’ sublimely complemented the suburban darkness of Blue Velvet. Although a lasting uneasiness lingers for the first half, the latter has less punch as it tries to quickly hammer down what it’s trying to say through a tad too much exposition. The Joker’s actions gained him popularity as an icon for a social movement in Gotham, but it’s the only aspect of the script that doesn’t seem to fit with his sense of isolation.
God’s Lonely Man
Both Bickle and the Joker are fascinating character studies because both are God’s Lonely Man. The idea that a man can internalize a pressing anxiety and feel that macro subject at such a personal level, means that they find themselves tasked with changing the microcosm of the world they live in. We see one man in his solitary quest against the world, determined to make an incision into the fabric of humanity. The Joker’s violent thoughts and impulses are instinctual, derived from the universal sentiment of being an outsider. He puts on a mask to allow him to exist in this world. The problem is he doesn’t want to simply exist, these characters want to disrupt, they’ve been hurt and they want to hurt the world back.
Joker has received such a positive reception and many are wondering why. With Mark Chapman, with Lee Harvey Oswald, with Bin Laden. In real life, we see the devastating result of this anti-establishment extremism time and time again, and every time we wonder why. We only ever see the crux of their madness, when it becomes an outward energy that affects others and when it’s all too late. With Joker, we watch the steep decline and as alien as it might seem, his madness in a strange way seems warranted and understandable, rather than being seen as an inherent vice we are all too willing to dismiss as a thorn among roses.