Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen
For a long time, pretty much until Christopher Nolan came along, a criticism regularly levelled at Batman films was that they seemed altogether more interested in their villains than in their titular hero. Batman’s rogues gallery, long celebrated as a strength of the comics, presented somewhat of a stumbling block for big screen adaptations. With Joker, director Todd Phillips goes a step further by doing away with the Caped Crusader completely to focus solely on Batman’s most iconic nemesis. The result is a most unusual blockbuster. A superhero movie without a superhero. A comicbook movie without a single action sequence. Instead we get a psycholgoical drama, a character study of a damaged and dangerous individual. We’ve had gritty reimaginings of comicbook stories before, but Joker is something else entirely.
“Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” muses Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) to his counsellor. Since he was a child, Arthur’s mother (Frances Conroy) has always told him that he was put on the Earth to make people smile. He dreams of becoming a stand up comedian and one day appearing on his favourite late night show, ‘Live with Murray Franklin’ (Robert De Niro). But life hasn’t given Arthur a great deal to smile about. He lives an isolated life in a rundown apartment with his mother. His work, as a clown for hire, provides little validation. And now he discovers that government support structures that have been subsidising the treatment and medication for his mental illness are being rolled back, cutting him loose. Having recently been assaulted, when a trio of well off, stock market types start to antagonise him on the subway on his way home from work, Arthur lashes out, shooting them dead. As the media reports on this triple homicide committed by an unknown man wearing clown makeup, the frustrated people of Gotham City, suffering through a garbage strike which has seen the city overrun by rats and transformed into slums, adopt this clown as the mascot for a class rebellion.
Starting with the release of its first trailer and amplified by its reception at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Golden Lion, the release of Joker has been preceded by a storm of controversy with fears that its valorisation of incel culture has the potential to prompt violence. But as is so often the case, much of that hysteria was coming from people who had not seen the film. While Todd Phillips can be accused of fanning the flames of that controversy (see his comments about moving away from comedy due to the limitations of political correctness), his screenplay for Joker, co-written with Scott Silver, is more complex than much of the pre-emptive criticism assumes.
Much of what is complex and confronting about the film comes from the audience’s relationship with its protagonist, Arthur Fleck. Joker is the origin story of a villain, meaning our protagonist is a villain in waiting. But just because a character is the protagonist of a film does not, by default, mean they are being positioned as a hero. There is nothing admirable about Arthur as he is presented to us. At no point do you find yourself wanting to be Arthur, wanting to walk in his shoes. Spending time with this character is an uncomfortable and conflicting experience. Arthur is no hero. He is not even an anti-hero. While at different times you feel sympathy for the character, for his lot in life, that does not translate to support for his actions as we can plainly see that he is delusional. The film does humanise him, it does seek to explain the ‘why’ of Arthur, but again, just because we are being shown the world from his point of view does not mean that the film is endorsing that point of view.
There have been iconic incarnations on the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ in the past, but in delivering a typically intense and physical performance, Joaquin Phoenix establishes his character as something different. For starters, where Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger were playing the Joker, Phoenix is playing Arthur, a man we are told will become the Joker, though it would seem a very different type of Joker. A character usually defined by his anarchic yet brilliant mind, Phoenix’s childlike Arthur is strangely passive. A marginalised figure who has fallen through the cracks of society, his ascent to infamy is largely accidental, with the character and mystique of the Joker created by others and projected onto him, with Fleck merely obliging. Combining elements of his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Lynne Ramsey’s similarly Taxi Driver inspired piece from 2017, You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix paints a picture of an internally angry man who has always felt invisible and, through violence, discovers a means of feeling seen.
Joker wears its cinematic influences prominently on its sleeve – Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Network. From its early 1980s New York vibe and muted colour palette to its casting of Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin despite it being difficult to imagine an actor less suited to being a comedic late night host, Phillips’ film is determined to align itself with these complex, Hollywood Renaissance dramas rather than other contemporary comicbook movies. In fact, for a genre that has become focussed on interconnected, cinematic universe storytelling, Joker’s commitment to functioning as a stand alone story is refreshing. Not only does it refuse to specifically reference any of DC’s other heroes or films, it even complicates its own relationship with the Batman lore by, for example, setting the film during Bruce Wayne’s childhood which would make the Joker almost 70 years old by the time Wayne becomes Batman.
Whether or not it stands up against some of its referents, Joker is challenging and confronting in a way that mainstream movies rarely are today. But that is because this is not really a mainstream movie. Phillips has taken a small, indie, psychological drama about an unhinged, mentally ill man who feels pushed to the brink by a society that doesn’t care about anyone and, simply by calling that character the Joker, turned a film contemporary audiences would ordinarily have ignored into a likely billion dollar grosser. In that regard, Joker has played a trick on us all.
Review by Duncan McLean
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