My Verdict | ★★☆☆☆
Joker doesn’t want to be just a ‘super-villain’ film. It desires to be a proper, hard-boiled drama. It wants to be taken seriously.
On the surface, this is made all too obvious. Todd Phillips’ reimagining of the iconic baddie’s origins is stained with grittiness and grubbiness. It dives with abandon into raw anger and crippling despair. It’s flights of fancy, attempts at making us laugh, remain disturbing.
Yet, as someone once said: ‘why so serious?’ This po-faced attitude is where Phillips’ critically acclaimed but ‘controversial’ feature (wonderfully marketable though), begins to unravel for me. Joker is ultimately unsubtle and even empty. Like telling a ‘provocative’ joke but lacking a clever punchline.
Readers: spoilers ahead.
However, there are plenty of punches. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is the literal punching bag of this movie. He spends his days as a sign-spinning clown with a history of severe mental illness (his signature tic is an uncontrollable choking laugh brought on by anxiety-induced or depressive episodes) and a lack of comedic talent. Arthur is continually brutalised by society. This is Gotham City- where the garbage piles up, social services are cut and the anger of its downtrodden citizens toward patronising elites is palpable.
Arthur is one of those downtrodden bearing the brunt. Street kids terrorise him. Co-workers mock him. His pen-pushing counsellor (Sharon Washington) appears indifferent to his persistent ‘negative thoughts’. The only solace he finds is watching a successful evening talk-show (hosted by his idol Murray Franklin played by Robert De Niro) with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), who he cares for alone in a dingy apartment. Yet after one bad day, Arthur finds himself thrust into the spotlight and a symbol in Gotham’s uproar. He will discover it’s the perfect opportunity to tear down the life he’s had and the world with it. To turn his tragedy into comedy.
At best, Joker is messy and at worst, crass. Phillips tries to recapture the nastiness and dirtiness in Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Yet, he falls far short. There’s such little depth in comparison with those films. Phillips’ world is painted in such stark, dark colours both aesthetically and morally. Where Scorsese gave us layered and uncomfortably stirring work on how society creates and treats its vulnerable, unstable or deluded, Joker is merely shallow. It’s a horrible world with no redemptive qualities that inevitably produces a violent nihilist. As Arthur says, ‘you get what you deserve’. Yet as this film’s explosive punchline this is a disappointing and banal dead-end.
While Joker admittedly presents us with Arthur’s self-aggrandising fantasies, there isn’t enough distance for us to indicate that the world isn’t just as cruel as he experiences it. In the end, are his actions really vaingloriously self-righteous or just right? It’s these murky moral distinctions that Scorsese grappled with, especially in Taxi Driver, that Phillips rides roughshod over.
Is Joker celebratory of the violence it depicts? In Phillips defence, the violence that Arthur inflicts isn’t entirely cathartic but he does allow himself indulge the character. The most telling example of this is in a scene that longs to be ‘iconic’ (though it reaches again into classic Hollywood cinema- here it’s The Exorcist meets Singin’ in the Rain). As a newly made-up ‘Joker’ descends a Bronx alley staircase, kicking to rock music, it jarringly alters to composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s sadly bleak strings score. It’s almost as if the director-writer is having too much fun and then remembers he’s not meant to be. A epilogue scene is also distasteful for its decided abandon into a cruel comedic routine after two hours of forbidding descent.
Yet, Joker does have some momentum as a pulpy thriller. There is an undeniable dread that twisted in my stomach during certain scenes. While much of the protagonist’s characterisation or plot beats are very predictable, I could understand this as the film showing its cards and letting us watch the inevitable consequences play out. The final act is a nerve-wracking showdown where you already know the outcome, but are waiting for it happen in every gesture or exchange of dialogue.
Phoenix turns in a praiseworthy performance that is unique, at the very least. He crafts his own version of the Clown Prince of Crime to rival the previous incarnations given by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger and that guy who played him in Suicide Squad for ten minutes. Phoenix has always been effective at playing disconcerting men that seethe with percolating fury beneath those heavily shadowed eyes (perhaps most powerfully for me in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master). He also brings in his nightmarishly quirky interview ‘appearances’ from I’m Still Here. As Arthur, he can be disarmingly out-of-sync and yet retain that very real prospect of immediate violence. Like Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, his polite and passive petulance becomes progressively edged with unhinged coldness as he descends into insanity.
While Phoenix is convincingly pitiable as Arthur, the performance does get pretentious and mannered. His celebratory dancing and overdone physicality, embracing those bizarre bursts of theatricality amid all the gloomy realism, are awful for all the wrong reasons. Phoenix also gives us a veritable display of ‘Method Acting’ in the vein of Christian Bale or 70’s De Niro. All outwardly emaciated, the ‘Actor’ stretches out on his sofa at one point to reveal his cavernous stomach- just in case you didn’t see how much weight he’s lost for the role. Even tying his own clown shoelaces requires a prolonged moment of said ‘Method’ when he tenses his skeletal form. His Arthur never genuinely gets under the skin like De Niro’s Travis Bickle or even Rupert Pupkin.
Much likes its anti-hero, Joker seems to want recognition, even applause. But applause for what? As a DC-origins film that ties itself closely with the Batman story, it doesn’t have anywhere to go. I can’t see this iteration of the universe or character existing in any other DC film, let along the DCU (whatever happened to that?). As a genre film that tries to spark off our cultural-political moment, especially concerning mental health issues and reactionary violence in an age of spiralling decline and rising tensions, its understandings are problematically limited and cliché.
It should incite nothing remarkable- including both the acclaim and the controversy it’s getting.