Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable single white guy who is shaped by society into becoming yet another version of the Joker, a comic book villain that has existed for almost eighty years. Arthur lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and works as a clown for hire, but he dreams of being a stand-up comedian. Alas, he suffers from a condition where he laughs uncontrollably in inappropriate moments, causing him to further be a social outcast. As we already know given he is one of the grandest villains in cultural history, Arthur is a man on an unstoppable train to madness, mayhem, and anarchy.
Todd Phillips Joker is a film that we’re going to be hearing a lot about for a very long time.
An excessive amount of think pieces already exist in draft versions squirreled away across the internet, all itching to have their moment in the digital sun. I’m already exhausted by the oncoming flood of fan art and YouTube breakdown videos. That exhaustion hit me right in the gut about half an hour into the film, right about the point where I realised what narrative beats the film was going to hit, and how obvious and eager the film was to hit those beats.
Additionally, this exhaustion can’t help but come from the fact that this iteration of the Joker feels wholly reactive to the current age we live in. It feels like Todd Phillips reference material was not a stack of DC comics, but instead a wealth of bookmarked hot collared right and left wing blog posts about the current state of the world. And, instead of picking a side, Phillips can’t help but have created a film that feels like a grand shrug, with a hypothetically middle ground tagline of ‘there’s some very bad people on both sides’. Inevitably, the media has thrown themselves into a flurry, genuinely concerned that this film might create a world of copy cats, with the on screen violence spilling into the aisles and flooding into the streets. This says a lot more about the world that we’re living in that the film ever manages to do. The discussion surrounding Joker feels like outrage culture writ large, when the film itself is more of a parable about the gulf that exists between the poor and the rich.
All of this adds to the feeling that if this weren’t a comic book film, then it wouldn’t be getting the attention it is getting. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have been made at all. A lot has been said about how Joker pulls from the aesthetic of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and while those influences are blatant and oddly relevant for the material, it’s clear that Phillips was less interested in making a comic book film, and more keen on making a hard adult drama with a budget. In today’s landscape, Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy would struggle to get financing, so it’s painful to see that for a filmmaker to make a story about a man gradually turning to mania and mayhem, they have to turn to the most popular genre at the moment.
In turn, the fact that Phillips so clearly wants to tell a serious adult drama makes the moments that the ‘comic book’ roots appear feel trite and annoying. There is a grand level of presumption of knowledge when it comes to a film like Joker. The filmmaker knows that you know who Batman is, and they know that you know who Thomas Wayne is and what his inevitable fate will be, so Phillips needs to find a way to weave these threads into the film. The inclusion of Thomas Wayne feels organic, even if he is presented as a mildly brutish generic rich man wanting to be a Mayor (we do see him from Arthur Fleck’s perspective after all). But when Bruce Wayne is shoehorned into the plot, you can’t help but cringe. And then, as the climactic violence driven narratives death throes kick on, and Phillips drags us back down that alleyway to see yet another death of the Wayne’s – spilled pearls and all.
Strip away the comic book threads and you’re halfway to getting a great film. Don’t get me wrong, Joker is an immaculately crafted slice of cinema. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography captures a skewed version of New York City, with all its glorious piss-filled puddles shimmering with stark realism, and every inch of makeup slathered onto Arthur’s face feeling as grimy and tarlike as possible. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir crafts a powerful, suitably dramatic, slightly operatic score that weaves in and out of the mildly obtrusive needle drops that appear to remind the viewer of those Scorsese influences. These two elements go a long way in helping create the tone of the film, allowing Joaquin Phoenix to do his most Joaquin Phoenix-y performance yet.
It’s a powerhouse of a character piece, disturbing in its accuracy and dedication to mental instability and madness. Phoenix is, arguably, the best actor working today, and he clearly enjoys digging into the fractured psyche and misguided aspirations that flourish in Arthur Fleck’s mind. Fleck’s obsession with wanting to be a comedic guest on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) talk show, and ideally receive the validation he so desperately desires, is tangible. De Niro is, as expected, superb, wearing a set of dentures that are so perfectly ‘talk show host teeth’ that it hurts.
But, the lines between reality and fiction blur when it comes to both Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck and the narrative. For starters, one can’t help but have flashbacks to the stilted and misguided publicity stunt that Phoenix pulled when creating a ‘rap-persona’ for the mockumentary I’m Still Here, where he went on David Letterman and muttered his way through an interview.
On top of this, Fleck dreams of making a martyr of himself by committing suicide on live TV, and given the attempts to portray mental illness in an open light, the comparison to the real world on screen death of Christine Chubbuck can’t help but be made. This is accentuated further by the repeated moments where Fleck visits his therapist, only to find that funding for therapy is being cut, causing Fleck to state that nobody cares about the mentally ill.
In Antonio Campos’ retelling of Christine Chubbuck’s life, Christine, Rebecca Hall’s Christine continually tries to further herself and her career, but is consistently shut down and ignored, is routinely rejected and ridiculed, that it leads her to a point of exhaustion, and as history tells, she took her life live on TV. Joker is a hyper-realised, hyper-fictionalised version of Christine’s story, one where instead of living in hope, Arthur Fleck finds comfort in fear and hate. If there’s anything irresponsible about Joker, it very well might be this.
Even though we know that the Joker is a capital V Villain, Todd Phillips so earnestly wants you to empathise with Arthur Fleck, to understand how someone so completely rejected by society would turn to a life of crime and violence, and for the most part, he succeeds in doing so. Yet, given the extensive history of the character of the Joker, we can’t help but realise that we’re being asked to empathise with the devil. That in itself isn’t a terrible idea – after all, to understand why terrifying people do terrifying things, we should understand the steps that were taken in their lives to get to that point. But within Joker, there is a dubious presentation of mental health. The film wants to suggest that ‘if only these people had gotten help, this wouldn’t have happened’, but then that would suggest that we should sympathise, rather than empathise, with Arthur’s plight, which is violent and antagonistic, and so far from help that he has become a lost cause long before we meet him. And that in itself is a major problem.
Meandering in the background of Arthur’s pathetic existence is a narrative about the poor rallying against the rich. Phillips employs iconography so commonly utilised by the left, namely the ‘eat the rich’ (seen here on protestors signs as the less sly catchcry ‘kill the rich’) motif that exists online as a shorthand for the destruction of capitalism and the removal of the uber-rich. To some, it may seem that Phillips is clearly aligning Arthur Fleck with the modern left, suggesting that all it takes for them to be whipped into a flurry of protests is the brutal murder of three rich white bros. After all, the climax has Gotham City swamped by clown mask wearing folks, taking back the city by any means necessary. But, Joker is not smart enough for that.
See, as good as a film that Todd Phillips thinks he’s making, he’s simply not a strong enough director to balance the tightrope that is presenting empathy for a madman who brutally kills multiple people throughout the film and who also clearly has mental health issues that need working on. In one sly moment, Phillips has a background reference to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, only this time it’s presented as a porn film and not the caustic destruction of the media that the original film is. It’s here that it becomes clear that Phillips merely thinks that referencing this material (and, of course, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy) is heavy lifting enough, allowing the prior knowledge of these texts to create the subtext, rather than Joker ever actually crafting a subtext of its own. This becomes even more apparent when Fleck quotes ‘Cellophane Man’ from Chicago, showing a complete misunderstanding of that sad man song, and it’s with this note that Phillips possibly adds to kindling to the misguided incel fire.
Gosh, I’ve written 1,600 words already for a film that purely exhausts me. It so desperately wants to be a hidden bomb, and a lit fuse, and a ticking clock, and yet, it struggles to do all together in harmony, causing the fuse to fizzle out and the bomb to never explode. For all the hype and anxiety surrounding the film, one can’t help but walk away asking, all of that noise for this? But, inevitably, people will pull what they want from the film, and it will gradually become larger than the sum of its parts, having its thematic threads misunderstood, transforming Joker into a comic book version of Fight Club.
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy
Writer: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver