Joker ★★½

Joker doesn't do anything that hasn't been done before. It's standing upon the shoulders of giants and doing so without any shame or discomfort whatsoever. In fact, rather than disguising its influences it proudly places them front and centre, at times it feels less an exploration of DC Comic mythology than a celebration of the gritty wave of anti-hero films of the 1970s. A celebration so loud and unabashed that it harbours not an ounce of nuance or subtlety.

It's an origin story, that not only wants to provide a sturdy backdrop for one of cinemas most iconic bad guys but also detail how an unhinged society can prod and poke at someone until they snap, and also providing insight into how society creates divisions and opposing elements within itself. Out of all of these components, the origin story is by far the most successful. It is tragic and uncomfortable. We're pushed into feeling sympathy for a character who is literally stepped on by everyone around him, disrespected at work and ignored by the people he seeks help from. Admittedly, these beats (getting robbed by teenagers and having his medical treatment cancelled by unsympathetic nurses) are glaringly obvious in regard to their purpose. It's the quieter, more introspective moments in between in which the film is at its best. As Phoenix contorts and buckles into grotesque poses, pulling at his cheeks to form a smile, slapping white paint to his face and then juxtaposing the vulgar behaviour with graceful dancing.

There is something unknowable in those moments, something detached from the world that the character inhabits, someone that could just as quickly bite your face off as he could give you a cuddle. It's the environment and atmosphere around the character that undoes some of this incredible character work. With such an obviously oppressive and aggressive it is no wonder that someone, under the right circumstances, would become so violent. To make a very very obvious comparison, in Taxi Driver, the mental wellbeing of Travis is spiralling into darker and darker territories - it's his perception of the streets of New York that are caked in filth and disease. Joker makes the decision to actually coat everything in dirt and scum. To firstly, make us feel sympathy towards the character and secondly, to point the blame at society as a whole. What made/makes Taxi Driver so compelling and disturbing was/is how it subtly presents two or three possibilities as to how Travis end up the way he does. He was an ordinary and anonymous man in a sea of millions of others, who slowly became someone dark and extraordinary. Joker gives us the anonymous man sprinting towards danger in a world that is already awash with brutality and cynicism. So where is the surprise and the suspense? Everything feels inevitable.

It's a cardboard cynicism, taking potshots at big targets that carry little to no weight. Pharmaceutical companies are bad, TV is a false reality and billionaires aren't moral. There's a distinct lack of substance to the world around around Arthur, nothing more beyond an impression of seventies Scorsese. With such an impetus placed on this damaged society, it would have benefited greatly from a lot more development. As it is, the film operates on cues and conventions of specific eras of cinema that we're all familiar with - offering very little beyond their immediate recreation. It's a shame as the central performance deserves so much more.

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