Darkness no longer has much to do with feelings of alienation the filmmaker wants to express or purge, as was the case with a film like “Taxi Driver.” It’s not about exploring uncomfortable ideas, as was done in “The King of Comedy.” Do you think Todd Phillips, who co-wrote and directed “Joker,” and references those movies so often you might expect that Martin Scorsese was enlisted as an executive producer here as a way of heading off a plagiarism lawsuit (he dropped out not too long after signing on, however), really cares about income inequality, celebrity worship, and the lack of civility in contemporary society? I don’t know him personally but I bet he doesn’t give a toss. He’s got the pile he made on those “Hangover” movies—which some believe have indeed contributed to the lack of civility in etc.—and can not only buy up all the water that’s going to be denied us regular slobs after the big one hits, he can afford the bunker for after the bigger one hits.
Which is not to go so far as to say that if you buy into “Joker,” the joke’s on you. (Except in the long run it really is.) If you live to see Joaquin Phoenix go to performing extremes like nobody’s business, this movie really is the apotheosis of that. As Arthur Fleck, the increasingly unglued street clown and wannabe stand-up comic down and out in what looks like 1980s Gotham (although who knows what period detail looks like in fictional cities), Phoenix flails, dances, laughs maniacally, puts things in his mouth that shouldn’t go there, and commits a couple of genuinely ugly and disgusting crimes with ferocious relish.
Much has been made, by Warner, and I guess DC Comics, of the fact that this is meant as a “standalone” film that has no narrative connection to other pictures in the DC Universe, but that’s having your cake and eating it too when you still name your lunatic asylum “Arkham” and your cinematic DC Universe is changing its Batmen every twenty minutes anyway. Maybe what they really mean is that this is the first and last DC movie that’s going to be rated R.
As Gotham begins to burn (the civil unrest starts with a garbage strike), Fleck, who has been taken as a vigilante by much of the city’s 99%, doesn’t quite know what to make of his underground cult stardom. (The city is beset by rioters in clown makeup and clown masks; because this movie is rather suddenly behind the curve in “clowns-are-scary” awareness—only Pennywise gets a special dispensation these days—these sequences look like “The Revolt of the Juggalos” or something equally laughable.) His mom (Frances Conroy, the poor woman) has been writing letters to her former employer, the magnate Thomas Wayne, and Arthur opens one of the missives and reads them, learning something disturbing.