Essentially a remix of Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY. The way the film constantly, constantly calls attention to those films does itself few favours, but there’s an appealing energy both behind the snarling anger of class politics, as well as Phoenix’s committed performance. The incorporation of DC comics lore is strange. At times it serves as useful colour, but the film suddenly seems to become very referentially interested in it towards the end, where it becomes tiresome and awkward.
What works better is the air of engagement with the Christopher Nolan Batman films, riffing off various mythology elements of BATMAN BEGINS as well as visuals from THE DARK KNIGHT, but most pointedly asserting the fundamental wrongness of the sort of politics that the neoconservative elements of that trilogy (the Bush apologism of THE DARK KNIGHT, the critique of anticapitalism in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES). The first ninety minutes or so of the film are a protracted depiction of societal injustice, the way the poor and the sick are left behind, the greasy lies and hypocrisy of the rich. Thomas Wayne sneers at the selfishness of the poor while the camera lingers on Phoenix’s emaciated body. Joker’s boss chastises the foolishness of the idea of someone stealing a sign, right before probing Joker about stealing the apparently ‘worthless’ sign.
The political angle gets murkier when it comes to the climax, with amorphous sorts of riots and violence of dubious positioning. But by immersing the audience in the sort of mindset that would eventually commit certain acts, the film seems more interested in empathy than either condoning or condemning Joker. Like a taunted caged animal, is it that surprising when lashing out occurs? For all the wrongness of the acts, the film seems to spend all its time (too much, if anything – the TAXI DRIVER retread material in particular seems to linger on without really evolving the way it did in that film) mapping how people get to the point of committing crimes, rioting, and so on. The two threads of a character study of a madman, and a showcase of a dehumanising and mad society, don’t always intertwine in a way that enrich each other, and this is the cause of some of the murkiness of the climatic acts and how they’re positioned.
It’s timely, but fails to crest to making any sort of coherent thesis or even act of drama, instead retreating into comic lore and gesturing back to absurdity. Still, even being an utterly shameless adaption (in all but name) of two vastly superior Scorsese films, it marks growth for the class of comic book adaption films. The many shots of Phoenix’s too-thin body might scream out for awards recognition too much, and too much of the film plays the character study angle too simply (repetitive scenes endearing audience sympathy without any real iteration), but – even if only by nature of not iterating on the films it takes inspiration from – it all does, more or less, work. Three French fries, and a dropped gun.