When Robert de Niro’s movie “The Taxi driver” hit the screens in 1976, it launched de Niro as the quintessential actor of that generation. De Niro’s portrayal of a New York cabbie who went berserk one fine evening changed the face of cinema forever.
This is exactly what I felt when I watched Joaquin Phoenix in his portrayal as Joker in the 2019 adaptation of DC Comics’ most villainous villain and arch nemesis of Batman. Like De Niro, Phoenix brought his a-game in this movie, even shed several pounds just to prove a point and give justice to the role. The similarities are unmistakable and the fact that De Niro plays a significant and not a cameo role also in this Joker movie, makes one think that probably, this Joker movie is a subtle adaptation of the 1976 thriller, or maybe not.
Packaged as a thriller, yet this Joker film and the one which most of the story were based on, tried to resolve an age-old question: what makes a man go to the dark side? Is it the system where he lives or is it him essentially, and only him failing to deal with his demons?
Who is the true mentally deranged—the one inside the hospital or outside of it? All throughout this film and of that of De Niro’s 1976 movie, these main characters underwent stages of transformation, not just on the physiological, more of their mental states. The cabbie went wild shooting people while Fleck who now assumed the identity of the Joker was more finesse– he shot his idol in the head before millions of stunned Gotham TV audiences.
Many fine actors already played the Joker role, but only three made it iconic. Award winning actor Jack Nicholson first made the portrayal of a demented Joker. It was however, Heath Ledger who made Joker a scheming neurotic criminal worthy of someone’s undeserved praise.
What made Phoenix’s version of Joker an 180 degree departure from earlier portrayals is the attempt at making him extremely human, and closer to life. Arthur Fleck is more real a name than Jack Harper, the most popular name for the Joker since the sixties. The first scenes within ten minutes remains unbelievably memorable. Those contorted forms created by Phoenix are the actor’s way of communicating what happens inside the mind of an ordinary man afflicted by a laughing disease which makes him an oddity in an intolerant society. We also saw that in the Taxi driver with De Niro doing contortions in his body while he faces the mirror, an allusion to what Phoenix did again, yes you guessed it right, also before a mirror, of his own emasculated bodily frame.
In the 1976 movie, De Niro works as an ordinary cabbie who preferred driving the streets of New York at night due to his chronic insomnia problems. Phoenix meanwhile magnificently played a clown, afflicted with a laughing problem. Called Pseudobulbar affect (PBA), or emotional incontinence, psychiatrists say this is a type of emotional disturbance that manifests itself thru uncontrollable episodes of crying and/or laughing or other emotional displays. The Joker had it, which he got when he was abused physically as a child by his adoptive mother’s boyfriend.
Of course, not everyone who has this illness suddenly turn into homicidal freaks. And this makes this film and the 1976 one interesting.
I would not be spoiler here except of course, to say, that, while one watches this film, it makes one wonder what really is the threshold for a deranged or sick man to go and do some violent stuff. The Joker and Taxi driver are both social commentaries, dark parodies of the backwaters of the capitalist system, a brutal statement of the state of mind people have living in such a decrepit and parasitic capitalist society.
One layer of the film also talks about the sociological biases of people when it comes to individuals with special illnesses, of how society treats them badly and of how society structures itself to instantaneously ostracize the rejects, the weak and the defenseless.
For those who believe in Darwin and Freud, nature has its way of isolating rejects and those of weak constitutions. Like nature, society behaves and encourages strongmen and women consistent with its desire to preserve itself, as what Schopenhauer and Nietzsche wrote a century ago.
For Joker and those what we now know as members of the lumpen proletariat, such individuals metamorphosise into creatures of a criminal nature as a consequence of a rotten and despicable system that trumpets the triumphs of the rich and the wealthy, and spits out those who fail to exploit their own fellow men.