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5 ways in which Joker references the classic movies of Martin Scorsese


Joker is on release now in Cineworld, and paints a striking picture of a descent into madness.

Director Todd Phillips collaborates with star Joaquin Phoenix to bring us the story of Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comic who suffers a litany of humiliations during his life in Gotham City. When these tragedies reach critical mass, Fleck adopts a terrifying new persona and, with more than a dash of irony, finds that far from being invisible he now gets to have the last laugh.

Departing from the standard approach of many comic book movies, Phillips instead pays reference to the classic movies of Martin Scorsese. Here are all the ways he does so, in the process fashioning Joker as a very different type of movie for the genre.

1. The visuals

It's evident on seeing Joker how studiously Todd Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher have replicated the decaying New York world of Martin Scorsese. In particular, the film owes a debt to Scorsese's seething 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver, which famously began with Robert De Niro's tortured cabbie Travis Bickle emerging from a Hadean, red-tinged cloud of steam.

The squalid interiors of Fleck's apartment, bathed in equal parts shadow and queasy, jaundiced hues of green and yellow, owe a clear debt to the scenes set inside Bickle's own flat. And wider context comes from the background television noise, with its references to plagues of 'super rats' and garbage strikes, and also the graffiti-strewn exteriors showing Gotham's streets.

It's a deliberate move from both director and the director of photography to locate this particular origin story in a very different realm from the conventional comic book movie. In this instance, Fleck's psychological collapse is foreshadowed by the seedy world around him – this Joker is created, not born, although his identity is also shaped by plenty of inner demons.

2. The sound design

Scorsese's movies are famously immersive, with the urban clamour of the streets invading every facet of his characters' lives. Taxi Driver is another famous example of this – even when sequestered inside his own apartment, Travis Bickle can't escape the blaring car horns and emergency sirens from outside. It creates a cauldron of tension that hastens his collapse.

Phillips replicates this aesthetic in Joker, right down to the sound of traffic and horns outside Fleck's apartment building. It shows how the morally empty world of Gotham steadily gets under the skin of the central character, and helps turn him insane.

3. The score

Joker is notable for how it's only the second comic book movie to be scored by a woman. Earlier this year, Pinar Toprak delivered a rousing accompaniment to Marvel Cinematic Universe movie Captain Marvel, but clearly Joker demands a very different approach.

Phillips turned to Chernobyl composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, whose soundtrack toils with a sense of despair and unease. It's heavy on the cello arrangements, which reflect the tragedy of Fleck's eventual transformation – admittedly, this is different from the sultry jazz of Bernard Herrmann's iconic score for Taxi Driver.

However, during the violent moments, the Joker score pounds with all the timpani force that Herrmann's music did during Taxi Driver's more disturbing scenes. It's a subtle comparison, but one that becomes apparent on a study of the two soundtracks.


4. The themes

It's not hard to draw storytelling comparisons between Joker and the films of Scorsese. The sense of broiling urban alienation is, as we've already said, drawn directly from Taxi Driver. However, there's an entire strand to the Joker movie that pays reference to another Scorsese masterpiece, The King of Comedy.

This pitch-black study of narcissism and the perils of fame stars Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, a loner who is hellbent on becoming a stand-up comic. To this end, he kidnaps his idol, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), with the aim of blackmailing his way into the big time.

The presence of De Niro in the Joker cast as stand-up host Murray Franklin is more than enough to make the comparison obvious. And Joker actively plays on the uncomfortable themes of The King of Comedy by showing us Fleck's daydreams in which he's taken under the wing of his idol Franklin. Of course, Fleck's aspirations backfire and become another part of the critical mass of tragedies that hasten his downfall.

One of the greatest scenes to underline this is the comedy club moment where Fleck observes a stand-up act, and pointedly cackles out of step with the rest of the audience. It's unnerving, darkly funny and shows us that this Joker origin tale is no laughing matter.

5. Joaquin Phoenix's performance

All of the movie's themes coalesce in the central, tortured figure of Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur himself. The actor is famous for his disturbing, animalistic portrayals in the likes of The Master and You Were Never Really Here, and he fully commits himself to the role of disturbed loner Fleck, twisting his body into all manner of contortions while painting a vivid picture of his inner torment.

There are comparisons to be drawn with Travis Bickle, and there's been a big Oscar push behind Phoenix's portrayal. Whether this controversial film will prove too divisive with Academy Awards voters remains to be seen, but there's no denying the power of this most mercurial of actors.

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