I don’t know that I’ve seen a better made bad movie. It is a movie wearing the darkness and grit of late 70s-early 80s Scorsese as cosplay, without attempting to understand what movies like King of Comedy or Taxi Driver were trying to say. Essentially, why is not a question Joker ever considers. It does things because those things seem dark and provoking, but there is nothing behind them. It is vacant posturing, a movie hoping its darkness will mask its emptiness.
Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck. Fleck works as a clown, scraping out a life in what appears to the early 80s Gotham City for him and his invalid mother. Fleck suffers from mental illness, taking numerous medications and still being prone to bouts of irrational laughter. He dreams of being a stand up comic, like his idol Murray Franklin. In the opening minutes of the movie, Fleck is beaten by a handful of kids who were harassing him as he worked as a clown. From his already abject starting point things get worse for Fleck. The funding for the social services that helped him pay for his medications gets cut, so he goes off his meds. He gets a gun from a coworker after his beating, but having while working gets him fired from his clown job. After another beating on the subway, Fleck fights back, shooting three men who were accosting him. The lone bright spot in his life is his budding relationship with a single mother living a few apartments down from him and his mother.
As shit keeps being piled on Fleck, he begins losing his hold on rationality. Many people treat his subway killings as a call to action, since the three men were well off money men, working for Wayne Enterprises. Thomas Wayne, exploring a potential run for mayor, calls the poor people reacting that way clowns, inspiring clown make-up at the protests arising all over the city. Things finally come to a head when Fleck gets the chance to meet Murray Franklin.
Joker pulls scenes and shots straight out of movies like Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and A Clockwork Orange. It seems desperate to appear to have something to say. But as the movie attempts to unravel Arthur Fleck goes on, it becomes more apparent that there is nothing there. That is despite some all caps ACTING from Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Fleck starts delusion. The movie maybe wants to show why the character finally broke and became the Joker, but it doesn’t come to a better answer than that he was crazy. The movie can’t seem to help but show its contempt for the people protesting in the streets, but they are contrasted with the selfish and corrupt like Wayne or Franklin. Everyone is venal and self-serving.
The movie was numbing. Its desire to shock, to provoke radiates from every scene. But the movie doesn’t actually have anything provoking to say. It is utterly bleak, but that bleakness isn’t expressing anything. It isn’t a black comedy; there is nothing funny here. This is just two hours of ugly posturing that has nothing to say.