“Joker” invites comparison with “Taxi Driver.” Some people might even claim that Joker is Taxi Driver for millennials. If that is true, let’s think about what that means.
I was about 21 years old when I first rented Taxi Driver, on DVD, from the video store. I’d heard that the guy who shot Reagan had been affected by the movie, so I decided to watch it mostly from an historical perspective. I watched the movie, sat for about five minutes thinking, and then I watched it all over again. Then I watched the documentary. The next day I watched the film again.
Taxi Driver follows an insomniac cabbie named Travis Bickle, a loner, a Vietnam vet (in a scene where Robert DiNero does pushups in his kitchen, his back is covered in whip scars) as he forms a plan to Do Something, anything, to declare his existence.
Joker’s protagonist seems to have a similar motivation. He is a loser by any normal standard, and he can’t seem to make friends with anyone. But there is a difference. Travis Bickle is unhappy, but he does not appear to other characters in the film to be mentally ill. He holds a job, lands a date with a beautiful woman, his co-workers joke with him. Travis Bickle’s problem is that he unconsciously sabotages himself. He takes the beautiful woman to an x-rated movie theatre. He toughens himself by holding his wrist over a stove flame and does a regimen of pushups, then eats a meal made of bread, milk, honey about 10 tablespoons of sugar and whiskey in a bowl. He pushes his TV stand with his foot further, further, until the TV falls and breaks, and then he buries his face in his hands as if to say “Why did you do that!” The effect is that the viewer understands that, yes, the world in which Travis Bickle lives is filthy and he is surrounded by seedy characters, but this is to some extent the result of faults in Travis’ behaviors. Almost as though, at some level, Travis wants to live in his environment, because it allows him to reinforce his misanthropy and his feeling of martyrdom.
Joker’s protagonist never has a chance. He is portrayed as being mentally ill at the beginning of the film, having spent time in a mental hospital. His coworkers are mean to him, he is the victim of a beat down while dressed as a clown (his job), and then his boss doesn’t believe he was beat up, so he docks his pay. One of his coworkers gives him a gun (the film seems to suggest that the coworker wants to get Joker in trouble), which he then drops while performing at a children’s hospital. A woman on a bus yells at him for being nice to her kid. While riding the subway, three drunk rich kids start to beat him up. Even Batman’s dad, who is running for mayor, punches Joker in the face. Oh, and Joker lives with his mom and used to get beat up by her boyfriend as a kid. Okay, so the guy is mentally ill and very unlucky. I mean the guy gets beat up two days in a row by strangers.
I get it, this is a fictional Gotham City, it’s not supposed to be the real world. But that’s kind of the problem with this movie. It seems to take itself seriously; it seems to want to make a comment on mental illness and the subculture that doesn’t get laid and hates the trust fund people. But to get to the point that the viewer feels some kind of sympathy for the anti-hero, the film has to make the world in which the character lives so brutal that it stops being a real world. It’s like the film wants to have it both ways: it wants to say, “See, society drives people to be like the Joker,” and also, “This is not society as it really exists.” Some people who identify with the Joker may feel that the world is the way it is presented in the movie, but they are delusional. Everybody has a good day every now and then, and they can make something out of it, maybe. The Joker has never had a good day in his life. So he kills people. Is that some kind of moral?
Even if you have not seen Taxi Driver, you know the scene where DiNero stands in front of a mirror and practices tough talk. “You talkin’ to me? Well I don’t see anybody else here. Okay. Take THAT ya FUCK!” There is a very similar scene in Joker, where the character pretends to meet a girl on a dance floor and fantasizes about shooting a guy that’s with her, but he accidentally shoots a hole in his wall. There’s another scene where he walks into an automatic door. So the Joker is bumbling. Travis Bickle is methodical: he cuts a curtain rod and fashions a kind of holster so he can hide a gun in his sleeve and have it drop into his hand. He walks up behind a robber while shopping at a bodega, points the gun at his head, says, “Hey,” waits for the robber to turn around, then shoots him. When, in the end of the movie, Bickle goes on his killing spree, it is unexpected, but not surprising. When Joker goes on his killing spree, I think he was the only one in the theatre who didn’t see it coming.
So the biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t seem to know whether the Joker is already a psychopath, or “society” makes him one. It seems to suggest that he is already looney when the film starts. So then, what is the point of the film?
Roger Ebert almost always gave at least a half of a star, unless the movie was so aggressively bad or morally bankrupt that he could find no cinematic value to it whatsoever. One film that he awarded zero stars was called “I Spit on Your Grave.” In this movie, a woman is terrorized and raped and tortured and left for dead over the course of an hour and a half, and then she gets her revenge by terrorizing and torturing the men who terrorized and raped and tortured her. “The whole point of this movie seems to be to show such awful things being done to one person that you don’t feel so bad when they do awful things to other people,” (I’m paraphrasing Ebert). But the problem is that the viewer doesn’t feel that any justice has been done, just that a woman had her life ruined and then was just as bad to the bad people as the bad people were to her. Is that entertainment?
What makes Joker watchable is Joachim Phoenix’s performance. He does a very good job of seeming mentally ill. And that’s what most of the movie is, watching Joachim Phoenix act mentally ill. But you could probably save $15 and talk to John outside Lionheart if you want to see someone act mentally ill. Or you can watch the President speak at one of his rallies.
Probably I am being too hard on this movie, but it almost literally begs to be contrasted with Taxi Driver. It has DiNero in it. The characters pretend to shoot themselves in the heard with a gun made out of their index and ring fingers, just like DiNero did in his closeup at the end of the climax of Taxi Driver. If a film is going to try so hard to draw a parallel between itself and a classic, then it raises the critical bar.
The cinematography of Taxi Driver moves the plot. In one scene, Travis Bickle looks at the bubbles in an Alka Selzer, and the camera zooms in and holds the shot for half a minute as the background noise of diner conversations fades out. This says “Travis Bickle is zoned out.” In another scene, Bickle stands talking into a payphone, and you hear him apologize and rationalize his having taken Betsy to an x-rated movie for a date. The camera pans away so Bickle’s voice is off screen, while the shot shows an empty hallway for 45 seconds. The message: Loneliness. The only scene that really stands out to me from Joker is one where he dances on some steps in the sunlight in his Joker outfit. The message: the Joker is insane. But I already knew that.
Taxi Driver’s characters are multi dimensional. You kind of don’t like Betsy, but you see why Travis would be attracted to her, and she gives him a chance. You don’t care for the pimp, Harvey Keitel, but he is funny and seems to want to protect the 13 year old prostitute that he whores out. Travis Bickle is actually likable, he seems to have a sense of morality. The result is a feeling of foreboding and loss as the film reaches its climax and you realize that all of these characters are going to die because of the choices that they made. Joker’s characters are as one dimensional as you can get. There are Drunk White Rich kids, who throw french fries at nice girls and punch clowns in the face, so they have to get shot. There is a Mean Fat Coworker who gets the Joker in trouble, so he has to get stabbed in the neck and eye and his head smashed against a wall a bunch of times. There is a nice midget who is always friendly, so he does not have to get killed. There is a Delusional Mother who let her boyfriend beat up the Joker when he was a child, so she has to get smothered. There is a talkshow host who made fun of the Joker for being a terrible comedian, so he has to get shot on live TV. There is a rich guy whose wife wears pearls, so he has to get shot and his wife has to get shot. The only character development in the movie is when the Joker draws a letter in his notebook.
John Wick was entertaining. John Wick kills sixteen thousand three hundred and forty-seven people, because they killed his dog. There is no universe in which any of that makes sense, so you just watch the film and admire it for the complexity of the choreographed fight scenes. Joker only kills six people in the movie, so there is significance to the murders. It’s like the movie wants you to think that murdering is okay as long as you’ve been treated badly enough by everybody and never had a good day in your life. I’m not sure that’s a great message to put out there, because when people are depressed and lonely, they forget about any good days that they’ve had, and they think they have never had a good day and everyone has treated them badly and they are miserable through no fault of their own. Does that mean that they should go murder people? Maybe they ought to just go on vacation, or to a bar, or get a hobby. Woodworking is nice. Or hiking.