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Sat 14 December 2019
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Chris Sullivan gives his take on the controversial new film starring Joaquin Phoenix and compares its dystopian vision with 1970s New York and the UK today.


The rather deft and undeniably excellent new motion picture Joker, directed and scripted by Brooklyn-born Todd Phillips, is set in the mythical Gotham City of the 1970s – a clever move because, as we all know, Gotham is based on New York. To subliminally use the history of the Big Apple in this dystopian realisation reminds us of what might happen to our cities if we slide into populism. 

Undeniably, 1970s New York was as much a mess as the Gotham portrayed on screen and it is hard to separate the two. Back then, New York suffered strikes from electricity workers causing 48-hour blackouts and looting – resulting in more than 3,000 arrests while the city’s prisons were so overwhelmed that some suggested reopening a jail recently condemned as unsafe. There was also a 17-week long garbage collectors’ strike which left mounds of garbage in the streets for four months, attracting rats the size of cats and a prevailing stink that might have even shocked Dickens.

If it hadn’t been for the intervention of the Teacher’s Pension Fund in October 1975, the city would have been bankrupt. It was unable to pay more than 10% of an urgent $453 million debt, while federal aid was repeatedly refused by President Gerald Ford and his advisors. If the city had gone bust, President Ford promised the bare minimum: “The Federal Government will work with the court to assure that police, fire and other essential services for the protection of life and property are maintained.” In other words, health, sanitation, social services and all the myriad amenities a city needs to run would have ceased.

Phillips’ Gotham is very much the same place. What we see is a dirty, forlorn, corrupt city reminiscent of the New York portrayed in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Crime is out of control. Social services have been cut, while there is a marked animosity towards the rich, who parade their wealth with unfeeling disdain.

“It is steeped in that world,” said Phillips of the comparisons with Taxi Driver in an interview with IMDB. “But it’s more of a jumble of the movies made between 1973 and ’81 – Network, Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We wanted to make a film that came out in 1979.”

Indeed, it is an amalgam of all of these and a whole lot more. The Joker, Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a man who has been certified as mentally ill and is entirely disregarded by society. He is refused treatment because of budget cuts to social services and is almost pushed into a life of crime, only to become a hero for the disenfranchised. 

This timely film is nothing less than a warning to the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, that they cannot simply ride roughshod over the poor and marginalised without certain recompense. As Joker proclaims: “What you get when you deny a crazy man his medication is exactly what you deserve.”

Certainly, this utterly incredible movie would be nothing without Phoenix who delivers one of the finest performances for decades. At once chilling and funny, there is not one moment when the audience doesn’t believe that this comic book character might exist. There is not one second when we don’t empathise with this victim and not one minute when we don’t enjoy his presence on screen.

An Oscar winner? Damn right, he should be. To play this emaciated, malformed victim of life, Phoenix lost so much weight and became ill. Because of this, the director could only do one take of each scene and wrote the script on set as he went along.

The film undeniably creates a new spin on Batman and changes his future role as a crusader for the establishment and his nemesis, Joker, a man of the people.

We shouldn’t just dismiss this as a world which could never emerge in the UK. Many people feel disenfranchised and have suffered terribly under austerity, while the Government is currently spending millions of pounds on adverts for Brexit and pre-election campaigning. Alongside record-breaking homelessness, there is a generation which sees no way of bettering themselves.

When Margaret Thatcher originally set this ball rolling, I am not sure she saw the dystopian future of a society bereft of reason that we are now suffering. But, with Trump and Johnson now focusing on the elite and ignoring the poor, this is a dangerous game to play. Many people might feel, as Joker says, “why not? I have nothing to lose.”

Joker is truly amazing. A very special film, one of the finest I have seen in decades. Do not miss it on the big screen.

Joker is in cinemas now.

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