First, Joker is thematically a blend of two Scorsese movies, Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, which co-writer and director Todd Phillips readily admit. He's admired character study films like those from the 70s and the 80s, and it was his intent to do a psychological portrait of a complex and manifestly unhinged comic book villain in the same way. The King of Comedy underpinnings is apt for this character who has been erasing and reconstructing the separations between comedy, tragedy, and outright evil for the better part of eighty years in the comic books. Even with the conspicuous nod to Scorsese's style of giving us a Taxi Driver like a study of the making of what we would now call homegrown terrorists--contemporary echoes of the Alt-Right neo-Nazis and the lesser antagonisms of Antifa on the left readily come to mind as the story unfolds--Phillips has his own approach in creating the slow, subtle evolution of this title card man. Visually, the movie is something else again, with New York City standing in for the mythic Gotham City--I haven't seen the grit, graffiti, and architecture/neighborhood magnificence that is the Big Apple used this marvelously in some time.
The cast is perfect for the disturbing and violent nature of this film. And get this, although there is no Batman, this is within a world that very probably does or eventually will be populated by DC's costumed heroes. But this is a standalone character study, and what they've done is impressive indeed and even brilliant in a peculiar, discomforting way. I liked it quite a lot. Don't think it's quite the masterpiece DC fans want it to be, but it is a finely made film that creates a mood and twists it ever so much through the film's length as we see an already on-the-edge character step closer to an abyss and he finally falls in. As Joker/Arthur is in every scene, nearly every shot, I take the story to be a stream of delusions, some situated in what appears to be Arthur's rat-race life, and others that are obviously grandiose, malevolent fantasies. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips did a superb job of managing the "untrustworthy narrator" device, taking the audience along a path of events where our expectations are eventually unmoored by contradictory incidents.
Phillips shows a knack throughout Joker for keeping us guessing, revealing unexpected bits of information that genuinely surprise us. Phoenix deserves at least an Oscar nomination, no less than Heath Ledger did. For the violence and politics, the animus toward the rich in Arthur's fevered perception hasn't an explicitly political bent, by design, I believe. The people, as they are, simply are tired of being crapped on and, like Arthur, are raging violently against the machine. And the film is beautifully, evocatively, amazingly shot--I have not seen New York City photographed this effectively in a motion picture for quite a while. And, of course, many dislike this film intensely. That's the kind of movie they intended to make. I believe.
There are hundreds of movies that have come out in the last 30 years or so that are insanely more violent than Joker--think of the Die Hard franchise, for example, or virtually Tarantino's entire body of work--but is the film that has people talking, upset, fretting. It was a strategically brilliant move to furnish this tale with a confirmed "reality, a center both writers and the audience can refer back to regain their bearings before going forward to see what develops with some idea of "what's going on." This film is wholly unreliable as a dependable account of what happened to this man and this city in this imagined universe. What had been taken for granted is indeed not the case but rather its center opposite, audience reaction, or at least mine, tended toward the antsy, anxious, nervous. Even in its slowness, the film gave you no room to relax. You might consider it analogous to watching a time bomb in a crowded public space, aware that it's going to go off at some time, yet you do nothing, just watching, waiting, become slightly insane with expectation. When it finally does go off, and you see the bloody death, destruction, carnage that is the consequence, uncensored, unfiltered, there is no catharsis as, say, a bullet in the skull of a generic bad guy in a Die Hard film would provide. For me, it was oh shit, there it goes, here we go, this awful, oh god...
Joker accomplishes that--blurring any finessed connections between fantasy and reality, as Scorsese provided in King of Comedy, a significant influence on this film, and having the violence viscerally affect you. It was like getting beaten up in real-time. This is the product of sheer artistry, and the violence is pure Guernica.