But it’s entirely possible you’ll come away from Joker with completely different impressions than I did about whatever underlying message there may be. I, for example, couldn’t help but read into the narrative some serious thematic exploration about agency and free will, both topics I think about quite a bit. But in a few brief discussions with others who’ve seen the film, I seem to be alone in that, at least within my friend circle.
I think a lot of that has to do with how abstract Joker is at times. I referred to it earlier as pure character study, and I stick by that. There are plenty of wonderful actors sharing the screen with Phoenix, namely Zazie Beetz, as well as Robert De Niro, whose character is largely a nod to The King of Comedy, a film that very much inspired elements of this one. But Arthur Fleck, aka “Joker,” is the film’s only real character.
As well as pure character study, Joker is also pure cinema—a work of art that simply couldn’t have existed in any other form than as a motion picture. Imagery and audio sit in the passenger seat alongside character development, and story just sort of seems to be dragged along for the chaotic ride, hanging onto the rear bumper for dear life (and I assure you, I don’t mean that as a slight in any way).
That focus on fundamental human truths, combined with the undeniable ’70s and ’80s aesthetic, keeps Joker from feeling too zeitgeisty, despite the current subject matter it grapples with. There is one thing, though, that betrays the film as absolutely not a product of the bygone era it emulates. Many parallels have been drawn between Joker and Taxi Driver, and they’re not unfair. One crucial difference, though, is that Phoenix’ Joker could not, in any light, be viewed as a hero or anti-hero or anything other than a force of nature unleashed by circumstance and his own weaknesses. To write it off as a mere mashup of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, as I imagine some will do, would be intellectual laziness of the highest (and snottiest) order.
Phillips walks a very thin line here: He wants you to understand this character without sympathizing with him. He doesn’t want you to want to watch the world burn; he simply wants you to recognize and acknowledge why some people do. And as with the best interpretations of this character (or at least the character that goes by this name) in print and on screen, Phillips