Watching and processing Joker is a bit like trying to square the circle, not just in trying to balance the film itself against its director’s obnoxious public statements and the debates which now swirl regarding its content and message, but in contemplating its protagonist, in weighing his deeds against his circumstances and his self-image against the image others have of him, on and off the screen.
What is clear to me is that is an extremely well made film, probably (easily) the best thing Todd Phillips has ever done, however he feels about it, and if not the best thing Joaquin Phoenix has ever done, then further evidence of his tremendous talent. It’s far from perfect and not necessarily a revolutionary achievement, but as a visceral experience—best enjoyed on the big screen—it is fearsomely impressive.
Spoilers, which will be confined to a designated area.
Gotham City, 1981: Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) has problems aplenty. A clown-for-hire, he is robbed and beaten by a gang of youths whilst performing on the sidewalk, and when a co-worker (Glenn Fleshler) gifts him a revolver for protection, he drops it during a gig at a children’s hospital and loses his job. He lives with his invalid mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), in a squalid apartment, where they spend most of their time watching TV, especially a talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), whom Arthur idolizes.
He also deals with unspecified mental health issues, seeing a social worker (Sharon Washington) every week and taking multiple medications, seemingly to little effect; he suffers from a condition which causes him to burst into laughter, and his general frame of mind is angry and bitter.
But he seemingly has reasons to be happy as well; a rapidly-blossoming romance with his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) and his ambitions to become a stand-up comedian offer rays of light in his bleak existence. Or so it would seem, until a moment of violence turns his entire world upside-down, and turns this film from merely a bleak portrait of a pathetic man into the story of…well, no spoiler here, the Joker.
Or, I suppose, a Joker, since the very nature of comic books allows for multiple origins and identities of iconic characters; as the Joker says in his most famous origin story, The Killing Joke, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” So consider this one choice as to how the greatest comic book villain of all time (in my view) came to be.
The elephant in the room, where Joker is concerned, is how it will be interpreted, or misinterpreted, by those who want to idolize the Joker and use his story as a justification for their own lashings-out against society, against women, against their parents, against the people they think have failed them and the people they think have it out for them. And of course, the people who, to quote The Dark Knight, just want to watch the world burn.
I cannot predict what others will take away from the film, and as I write this at 2:15 AM on Friday (having managed to catch a Thursday night screening), I can only hope that the opening weekend will be uneventful. Certainly, I’ve heard far more from those who fear the potential fallout than those who would take it is a validation, but I’m not about to say there’s no way it could be misread—only that reading it as such would require such a selective approach as to render the film itself secondary to the attitude.
For Arthur Fleck, from the very start of the film, is a pathetic wreck of a man, a man desperately in need of help but, in one of the film’s most chillingly plausible elements, clearly past thinking there is any help he can be given. From the first time we see him talking to his social worker, it’s obvious he puts little stock in what help she can offer, and when citywide budget cuts force her to drop his case, he hardly seems to mind.
It isn’t that Arthur doesn’t suffer—he suffers tremendously. And it isn’t that he doesn’t on some level dream of better things, doesn’t have some little flicker of hope and light within, but that the darkness within him is too powerful to overcome, and if the specific misfortunes which befall him during the film lead to his ultimately adopting a new and terrifying identity, there’s not much to suggest, at least by the time we meet him, that things could’ve turned out much better; there’s not much helping those who don’t believe they can be helped.
As I said before, to contemplate this film is like trying to square the circle, and trying to balance Arthur’s simmering rage against his traumas and his need for real help against the likelihood that he would not accept it is damned difficult, in all likelihood by design. And if perchance there are those who overlook how wretched Arthur is and see only his ultimate stature—or indeed set his wretchedness against their own and think they see their own potential in him—what can I say except they have not squared the circle but smashed it to pieces.
What makes the film work so well—and, in a sense, holds it back from being a bit better—is its sheer viscerality. No doubt it helped that I saw it on an enormous screen (four stories high and seven stories wide, I’m told) with first-rate sound, but there’s a depth to the film’s setting which is rare, and a focus on its protagonist’s point-of-view which opens up large parts of it to interpretation (more on that in due time), but also quite simply makes it the more unnerving, because we are given so little remove from what Arthur goes through.
Phillips realizes his Gotham, a metropolis of despair, with great care and with sterling support from his crew. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher puts the viewer right there alongside Arthur, making superior use of light, whether to capture the volcanic plumes of cigarette smoke which pour from Arthur’s mouth or the hellish atmosphere of the subway car where everything changes for him and us. The film owes a debt to 70s cinema from the very start, and Sher’s imagery, a combination of studied compositions and precisely controlled chaos, may be its outstanding homage to that decade.
Mark Friedberg’s production design is likewise vital, taking locations in and around New York City and turning them into the joyless hellscape that is 1981 Gotham; it’s a less flashy job than I expected, but it’s quite seamlessly executed, and it adds to the film a scope, a feeling of boundlessness (aided by Sher’s use of handheld imagery) that sets it apart. And Mark Bridges’ costumes simply complete the illusion.
Exactly who deserves the credit for the makeup is not entirely clear (the IMDb lists 28 people for the hair and makeup department), but whoever does deserves great credit indeed; from the all-important clown makeup to the sparingly used but vital gore effects, the makeup is first-rate throughout. So is Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s excellent score, which frequently evokes a pounding heartbeat to compliment the film’s nervous, relentless energy. And Jeff Groth’s editing keeps the frequently grim material from dwelling on any given tragedy long enough to become a slog.
It’s Phillips’ co-writer Scott Silver whose work I must criticize the most. As I noted, the film is highly effective at generating a bleak, despairing atmosphere, and at evoking Arthur’s personal hell, but the price of this evocative setting is a certain narrative momentum, and if the story is handled well enough not to really fail the film, it’s inescapably less satisfying than the specific moments and moods which it facilitates. And it’s near the end that the writing most falls short.
Spoilers; TW sexual assault.
Arthur, having become a folk hero (albeit anonymously) for having killed several young businessmen who beat him up on the subway whilst in his clown makeup, makes an appearance (in makeup) on Franklin’s show, having previously been featured in a video clip of his stand-up routine, which had bombed horribly. Arthur, asking to be introduced as “Joker,” goes on the show and, after alienating the audience and Murray with some stabs at dark humor, goes on a rant about society failed him and how the young businessmen deserved to be killed.
He then kills Murray, and is arrested shortly after, but the city is already being torn apart by riots, led by people in clown masks and makeup. The police car he’s in is struck by a commandeered ambulance, and he’s taken out, unconscious, by his “followers,” coming to and realizing his triumph, dancing to their acclaim. Meanwhile, a clown-masked individual shoots Thomas and Martha Wayne (Thomas has had his own troubles with Arthur, but I won’t delve into those—I can’t give everything away) in front of their young son Bruce.
But then we see Arthur in, presumably, Arkham Asylum, talking to yet another therapist, chuckling at a joke he refuses to share because, he claims, she wouldn’t “get it.” And then he walks down a hallway with blood-soaked shoes, before being chased by orderlies, and so the film ends.
Earlier in the film, it is revealed that Arthur is at least somewhat delusional, and separately, that much of what he’s been led to believe (for, it would seem, his entire life) is a lie. So this final scene only further calls into question how much of what happens in the film is real—notably, the murder of the Waynes is the only substantial scene in the film (that I can recall) that isn’t from Arthur’s perspective in one way or another. So whether or not that actually happens is, to my mind, up for debate.
Certainly the rant Arthur goes on strains credulity considerably—not least because it’s by far the most eloquent speech he has in the film, and because it so neatly calls out everyone Arthur bears malice towards. In the moment, I found it wearisomely on-the-nose, and certainly I could buy that it was only spoken in Arthur’s mind. But then, that would suggest Phillips and Silver were trying to have their cake and eat it too, and that’s tiresome in its own way.
But there is one detail worth nothing; as he makes his entrance on Franklin’s show, he kisses one of the guests, Dr. Sally (Sondra James; clearly a nod to Dr. Ruth Westheimer) multiple times, and without her consent; she is visibly upset by this and for the rest of the scene she continues to display her discomfort in Arthur’s presence. Whether this is really happening, or whether it’s all a fantasy and perhaps caused by a prickle of conscience on Arthur’s part, or just what’s going on, it further undermines any idea that Arthur is to be emulated or viewed too sympathetically.
I should note that while some will likely find these subversions of reality (or the suggestions of such) eye-rolling, they didn’t greatly bother me, and I have a relatively sensitive bullshit detector. I think. Your mileage will vary.
The script isn’t bad by any means; in fact, it’s pretty good for the most part. But it’s not quite on the level of the technical aspects or the acting—and yes, it draws heavily on The King of Comedy (and to a lesser degree on Taxi Driver and You Were Never Really Here (the latter perhaps unintentionally)), without packing the punch of either film—and keeps it on the lower end of **** for me.
The acting is solid all around, but make no mistake, this is Phoenix’s show. It’s not quite as fresh and potent a performance as his work in The Master, and he doesn’t redefine the Joker the way Heath Ledger did, but in its rawness, its idiosyncratic physicality, and its unflinching portrait of a crumbling psyche, it is a very fine one indeed. And yet he is perhaps most chilling when he’s sullen and withdrawn, so well does he capture the attitude of no longer believing that help is out there.
Everyone else in the film is solid or better; De Niro is properly snarky, Beetz does what she can with a thinly conceived role, and Conroy brings a sense of fragile pathos to her scenes and her dynamic with Phoenix. Everyone does their part and well, but it all comes back to Phoenix, who dominates the film first scene to last, not in a sense of hogging the spotlight but in a sense of the film moving in so close to him that we cannot clearly see anyone else.
It might be the greatest testament to Joker‘s strength as a film that I’ve had so much to say about it, even as there’s so much more I could discuss with only more time—and perhaps a second viewing. It isn’t quite essential viewing, not while the discourse around it is so focused on extra-cinematic factors, but I will recommend it—especially on the big screen. Seen thus, it’s nothing if not effective.