Since its debut at the Venice Film Festival, and even more so since its Golden Lion win, there has been a growing discourse surrounding Joker. To the point where it’s hard to even see that an actual film lies behind it all. Now I’m not about to begin analysing said discussions, I’m sure there will be smarter and copious amounts out there should you choose to, but it’s worth querying as to why this particular film has inspired so much. Perhaps it’s the fact that a comic-book rooted movie has been twisted into a mesmerising character based drama, full of darkness, violence and madness, has given Joker a larger degree of exposure than if this were a small independent flick. (The fact this film even exists is possibly its greatest success). But more likely it’s what lays within. A difficult film with a difficult protagonist. Does this movie, that spends its entirety within a severely troubled POV, frame him as a man to root for, to idolise (it doesn’t). Is it likely to inspire those out there impotent with rage to turn that into murderous actions (it won’t). Is it actually any good (it is). Joker grapples with numerous themes and messages; the treatment of the mentally ill by society, the economic divides that fester rage within people, the anguished need for those insignificants to be noticed, the media’s manipulation of the intellectually ill-equipped, amongst so much more. In fact Joker tackles seemingly everything that it culminates in pretty much nothing. Its final shot poetically ambiguous but empty. I would argue that that’s the point. The Joker, as a character, is not meant to be some big speechifying political statement with a message for the masses. He is nothing more than an instrument of chaos, content to languish within the realms of jumbled ideologies. This is a film that would rather ask a more personal introspective question. How does a man become the Joker?
We first meet Arthur Fleck as he prepares to go to work as a literal clown for hire. A mask of white face powder and arched smile underlying the fact that underneath it all he is desperately sad. He violently contorts his mouth into a malicious smile, tears rolling down his cheeks. All his life Arthur’s mother has told him to “smile” and “put on a happy face”, which here he takes to its literal conclusion, but he is anything but happy. How can he be? This is Gotham (well New York in all but name) 1981, the streets are teeming with rats and garbage owing to a long running garbageman strike. There is a seething underbelly of discontent among the denizens of the city, particularly towards those in wealthier positions represented here by mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (yes that Thomas Wayne). Constant radio and TV reports remind us that the city is one step away from madness, effective if a little lacking in subtlety. Arthur has spent time in a mental institution, requires copious medication and talks routinely, albeit she doesn’t listen, to an appointed social worker. A cramped apartment shared with his delusional mother Penny (a brilliant Frances Conroy) certainly adds to his intense anxiety. One in which he tries to lessen by trying his hand at stand up comedy. Something, anything, to make him be seen by those around him.
If this already sounds suffocatingly depressing then you wouldn’t be wrong. Joker never strays from Arthur’s POV, we see what he sees, imagine what he imagines. It allows you to fully absorb yourself into his warped way of thinking. Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy), who here writes with Scott Silver, plays a dangerous game here. He wants you to empathise with Arthur, without making you for root for him. A task to which he succeeds and then some. At no point does Phillips glorify what is basically a monstrous man doing monstrous things. We understand him. There are times when the line is very very close to being crossed. Notably in a third act which often shoots the Joker in a heroic light bathed in an upbeat piece of music, but you must remember this is from Arthur’s point of view. This is how he sees himself in his head. A star likely to feature in his favourite show Late Night with Murray Hamilton (Robert De Niro effective in a brief role) celebrating his great personality. When the reality is this is nothing more than a twisted fantasist desperately lost. Charges have already been made that the film could inspire those of a similar disposition to act accordingly, which feels deliberately narrow minded. No one ever besmirches Tarantino or Scorsese for shooting their violent leads as cool heroes, which they’ve often done. And how often have those films inspired real life acts?
The evolution from Arthur to Joker is beautifully staggered, too often films with iconic characters rush in order to get them to where audiences recognise them. Phillips holds back here, gradually pushing the buttons until all hell breaks loose. It is an anxious film, constantly leaving you in a state of wired impatience as to what will happen next. Unpredictability is all too rare in cinema now yet frequently I found myself caught off guard by what occurs. Success in this regard lies predominately at the feet of a man I’ve not mentioned yet. Joaquin Phoenix. An actor always able to fully possess a role, here he is a force of nature. Gaunt yet wiry (he lost 60 pounds for the role), pitiful yet terrifying, and constantly impulsive. His performance morphs and twists until you cannot see anything but his worldview. Phoenix has spoken of how him and Phillips worked closely to improvise things, altering the script to suit the character changes they made on the go. They take the iconography of the Joker and mould it within the fabric of tangibility. Take that memorable laugh. Every Joker has been judged based on the believability of that cackle. Arthur’s though is not some cartoonish affectation, his is a symptom of a (real) medical condition. One that causes him to laugh whenever he finds himself in stressful situations. High pitched, raspy and clearly painful for him, it adds a layer of sadness which is all sold within Phoenix’s eyes. We are a long way away from the playful screech of Mark Hamil.
The downside of Phoenix being so central to the story is that most of his supporting actors have very brief parts. It is rare to have someone like De Niro basically reduced to 3/4 scenes, yet he makes it count hard in the big moments. Others do strong work with what they have, like Zazie Beetz’s kind hearted neighbour or Brett Cullen’s seedy Thomas Wayne. Hearing that name might foster the idea that Joker ties into the larger DC universe. Remove that thought. This film is as standalone as you can get, refreshing in the age of franchise filmmaking. Phillips and Silver do have fun with the mythos though, working in some surprising connections that almost all work (one final act moment is lingered on perhaps too long), and provide just enough of a hint as to what sort of a showdown the man in black would have against this villain. Phillips does finds time to leech in aspects of the character we know and love. The sadistic playfulness, the unexpected (and here very brutal) violence. A subway chase and an undercover excursion into a movie theatre utilise theatricality which all the best Jokers partake in. Although I did find that he loses some of that once he evolves into the full on Joker, coming across ever so slightly hammy in the films big final confrontation. Not that this is a confrontation in the comic book flicks’ traditional sense. Joker is not interested in basic genre thrills. This is a character drama through and through. Todd Phillips has delivered something truly awe-inspiring, one that has used the success of R rated mature comic flicks such as Logan, to provide a mainstream film aimed at a broad market but made it so darkly specific. How often do you get films with this sort of huge marketing campaign for something that is twisted, aggressive and rigidly not for the masses?
Joker is a throwback to the character based dramas of the 70s and 80s, and Phillips is not shy of the influences here. Lensed beautifully by Lawrence Sher, full of sharp light and stark imagery. Scorsese is by far the strongest touchstone ( he was attached as a producer at one point), and not just in having De Niro play the polar opposite to his King of Comedy character. Taxi Driver is probably the biggest reference both dealing with societal outcasts lashing out in toxic masculine ways. However to claim it is an inferior copy is a little harsh, Taxi Driver came out of a post Vietnam aggression towards what Travis Bickle deemed the scum of the streets. He saw himself as a necessary avenging angel. Arthur Fleck has no such lofty ideals. Being seen and being treated with respect is all he desires. Seeing as he is most known for directing the juvenile Hangover movies, Joker represents a bolder more confident Todd Phillips. The craft on display is classy and controlled, with particular mention going to Hildur Guonadottir’s masterfully brooding score. The one downside of being funded by a big Hollywood studio and clearly meant for a broader crowd is at times the film plays things to the cheap seats. Over explaining things when a lighter touch would have worked best. It’s a shame the creative team couldn’t trust their audience more as Joker’s love of ambiguous storytelling would suggest anything but.
So often filmmakers shy away from ambiguity, usually due to a worry that the audience would leave unsatisfied, yet Joker plays with it throughout. Arthur is slowly revealed to be an unreliable narrator, resulting in an ending that will likely irk some. Irksome too is it’s stigmatised depiction of some aspects of mental illness, whereby it’s suggested that simply removing medication can result in murderous actions. Necessary for the story maybe but a little on the side of over-simplification. Powering through that though is Phoenix’s committed performance, wearing the body and eyes of a man who has seen what the world has to offer and cannot ally that with what he expects from it. This is film with little in the way of compromise, a film that reaches into the heart of madness and never lets up. Nihilistic, yes. Overwhelmingly miserable, yes. Memorable, oh hell yes.
Verdict: Forget the discourse, Joker is a staggeringly daring dive into one very mentally unwell man and his descent into ultimate chaos, with an indelible career best Joaquin Phoenix performance. A dirty, violent and unpredictable experience (in a good way).