dir: Todd Phillips
Since, I think, Silence of the Lambs, there’s been this case to be made that we, as in audiences, are happy to make allowances for characters that do awful things on camera, as long as they’re compelling. Hannibal Lecter kept us hypnotised like the cliché about the cobra and the mongoose, trapped in his unblinking eyes, and we could not look away.
All these years later, and we’re still paying the price.
With that comes the argument about heroes, antiheroes, jerks and other lunatics, and it muddies the waters a bit. The Joker from the comics isn’t, at his base, a complex character. I know nerds nerdier than I can point to thousands of different versions of the Joker, each more demented than the last, but the basic fact is, when first created, he was someone ridiculous, camp and chaotic, and meant as the fundamental antithesis of the orderly, stoic, rich psychopath Batman.
He’s not a deep character. No amount of overwriting or depth of performance really makes up for that gaping lack. There’s a primary reason why the director and the production lean so heavily on the aesthetics of 1970s movies, because without it they’ve got nothing else. Joaquin Phoenix is a compelling actor, mesmerising, all those descriptive words, and he’s great as this character, honestly.
It’s just that there isn’t much there. It feels bad saying it, but there’s not as much ‘there’ as they would like us to think. Without the Scorsese ripoffs, the transparent Taxi Driver ‘homages’, the Death Wish / Bernard Goetz restaging, and the embarrassing Fight Club-lite insult to our intelligence, there’s just a creepy guy who laughs until it hurts, and who kills a few people.
The world of Gotham as conjured here has less to do with the comics, and more to do with the kind of New York that the movies tried to grasp in the 70s and 80s: a diseased, corrupt, heartsick and pungent place, where the great unwashed threaten to drown not only each other, but the wealthy as well. Social order is breaking down, the garbage isn’t being collected, services are being cut to those who need them most, and people dance on the stairs for no good reason. It’s purgatory.