By Barbara Wurm
Ed. note — even Cinema Scope, in the face of potential online wrath, must needs post a SPOILER warning before reviews of films such as this.
The joker is not one, but three. A film, consisting of three, is usually a nuisance. Joker, splendidly directed by Todd Phillips and ingeniously performed by Joaquin Phoenix, is the opposite (although being more than just one film). Let’s call it what it is then, and what many immediately after its Venice premiere and now Golden Lion award have enthusiastically called it: a masterpiece. This film works perfectly for all superhero nerds cunningly manoeuvring through the Batman film-, series-, and comic book-universes, just as it works for those who grew up and got lost in Scorsese-land. The latter will indulge in scenery drawn from Taxi Driver, and smile upon the fact that Phoenix’s Joker, a.k.a. Arthur Fleck, is a failed stand-up-comedian who adores TV-show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert de Niro, who in King of Comedy was a comedian obsessed with a talk-show host.
The DC aficionados, on the other hand, will first of all be struck by the absence of the goody-goody: here, not Batman but the Joker takes and gives it all, a saviour of a different (the losing and destroying) kind, with morals standing above most of his fellow citizens’. Butler Alfred, on the contrary, is subtly present, at the gates of the Wayne family’s property namely, where Fleck (deprived of father, acknowledgment, and social status) meets his presumed half-brother Bruce Wayne while looking for his mother’s secret love (and thus probably his own begetter) Thomas, a tycoon running for mayor of Gotham City.
But Joker—and this is its real strength—stands by and for itself, beyond all layers and references, autonomously, like its (anti)hero: living a life in the midst of a multitude, yet all alone. It’s a story of man in utter desolation, singular and universal alike. Phillip and Scott Silver, whose earlier scripts showed a similar tendency to feature working-class heroes on their impossible way to a life in grace, add shifts and twists to the plot loosely based on Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke. It is thus up to the viewer to judge this criminal lunatic and slaughterer who might, after all, be only a humiliated creature caught up in his solitude, in a world, in which the slightest human gesture is doomed to remain a mere projection: Fleck’s affection for his single-mom neighbour (Zazie Beetz) is reciprocal only in his imagination. Even if blank despair and the inability of being funny is its topic, Joker never fails to please (Guðnadóttir’s cello climaxes excluded, but that’s made up for by a superb playlist). Which is probably the highest form of praise a piece of art can earn: to disperse discomfort and unease, anxiety and disquiet, but raise sympathy beyond harmony, and far from reconciliation or appeasement. When Fleck shoots the Trumpian Thomas Wayne in the end, our allegedly unpolitical killing joker—a failed creature all life long—has finally reached the bottom line of his ir/ratio: the US of A as a failed state.