Its no secret that Todd Phillip’s JOKER is heavily inspired by Martin Scorsese’s breakout hit Taxi Driver. From plot beats to Easter eggs, JOKER makes many references to Taxi Driver’s antihero Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), a deadbeat, socially incompetent loner trying to find his way in the scummy world of 1970’s bankrupt New York City. I enjoyed JOKER, but as I expected, didn’t find the titular villain’s backstory as depressed borderline-vagrant Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) to be any more developed than that of Taxi Driver’s Travis.
Compared to Taxi Driver, JOKER suffers from a necessary origin-story narrative, working backwards from an event rather than forward toward a goal. One of my favorite screenwriters Aaron Sorkin is well known for his simple character development style: making a character is not so much about what embodies their personas or values, but more of what they want. They have to have a distinct point B to their point A. Counter to this line of thought, everyone already knows that Arthur Fleck had an inescapable destiny to be this deranged criminal mastermind The Joker. By nature of this narrative, Arthur had no real choices to make, because he had no destiny other than the one we all expect to see.
I know pointing out how to make movie characters sounds super obvious: yea, of course characters want things. I do however think its important to denote because Arthur and Travis have very similar points of origin. Travis, on the other hand, develops as a character using self-analysis and reflection to go on a “moral quest” of sorts and discover who he wants to be as a man, using whatever circumstances that come his way to influence his decisions. At the beginning of the film as an insomniac Marine veteran, Travis becomes a taxi driver to “think and see” so to speak. He takes time to observe the environment that he’s trapped in for all of its vices, and uses that as motivation to rise above the crime and filth. Does Travis want to be a romantic white knight amidst the pimps and whores? He attempts this path by romancing Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), but fails miserably due to his own social incompetence when he takes her on a date to a porno. Ok, that doesn’t work, and he’s clearly viewed as a monster. Does he want to fully embrace the “bad boy” image as a New York rebel? He fails at assassinating Presidential candidate Palantine, because he’s not truly committed, a spark of goodness in him. Ok, so does he want to be the hero of his own epic novel? Despite her unwillingness, Travis succeeds in freeing 12 year old child prostitute “Iris” (Jodie Foster) from the manipulative pimp “Sport” (Harvey Keitel). He emerges having committed insane violence, himself severely injured, but now actualized as someone with a core human identity. He’s still delusional, but now with a heightened sense of control, more dangerous than ever. That is a scary thing to witness.
Arthur Fleck has none of this character development. His introspection is limited to (completely understandably), self pity. It is super clear to me that the way his story was formed fell along the lines of “Hey, Joker is a really messed up guy, and something made him crack, so lets build up some really messed up things to happen to him, and that’ll be our story.” News flash: if you’re constantly hit over the head (in this case literally) with horrible circumstance, you will go crazy. Without going into spoiler territory, the subtle twists and turns merely amplified this narrative. Arthur literally never had the ability to make any choices on his own, to vector towards good away from evil, because nothing good ever came across his path. I can’t say this makes for an interesting or distinctly frightening character. Yes, Joaquin Phoenix acted incredibly (Oscar-worthy for sure). The last 20 minutes or so, where we see the final state of The Joker, are fascinating, but the build up to this point featured no sense of self-discovery that put Taxi Driver on the map as an exemplary piece of antihero cinema.
And if anyone was wondering, JOKER: 6.2/10. Taxi Driver: 7.9/10.Follow @ReelMasterShots