Joker is one of those films that make you think hard about what you think about it.
Not since The Last Jedi has a mainstream release courted such discourse and controversy due to its creative choices and, let’s be honest, its mere existence. What should my approach be? Do I talk about the film on its own merits? Do I try and analyse the many opinions swirling around Joker since it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival? Do I talk about its place and standing within the superhero genre? Well, since this is a review, let’s stick with the film on its own terms. I may touch upon the other aspects of Joker, but it feels like those topics should be evaluated in a different article. Luckily, I have the Batman Retrospective for that so, for now, let’s talk about Joker on its own.
On paper, the idea to filter a comic book villain’s origin story through the lens of the New Hollywood films of the 70s and early 80s is a good one. Films such as Taxi Driver and the (in my opinion much better) The King of Comedy started a long and storied history of tales about lonely, obsessive, and mentally ill white men taking on a new persona, mostly through violent acts and murder, in order to feel powerful. Joker uses these films like Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck uses his clown make-up: to present a different comic book origin than we are used to seeing; to the extent that Martin Scorcese should probably call his lawyer.
Okay, I’m kidding about that. Director Todd Phillips manages to ape the style of one of cinema’s greatest directors in the same way that James Mangold used the tropes of the neo-western for Logan. I’m all for this personally, as both directors uses these influences to open up the possibilities that are inherent to these characters. I’m of the opinion that the less you know about The Joker the better, but Joker does craft a compelling story of how this man’s descent into homicidal madness comes to infect an entire city.
If we take Joker and put it next to Batman Begins, they become disturbing companion pieces. Both Arthur and Bruce are played by intensely talented actors who actively look for the chance to transform fully into these characters. Christian Bale swells up with muscle where Phoenix looks not much more than skin and bone. At the height of this transformation, both characters have an effect on Gotham City. Batman makes the streets safer, the Joker, whether it was his intention or not, causes riots.
Phoenix is spectacular as Arthur, a downtrodden jobbing clown whose life is brought down around him by his city, his employers, and his mother. He’s sympathetic to a point, but he’s also incredibly frightening; Phoenix is undoubtedly astonishing, well-earning the mounds of praise he’s been buried under for this jittery, painfully on-edge performance. The question that has been swirling around this movie is whether Joker condones the actions of its protagonist. Whether he is the villain or the hero of his own story, Arthur is not someone to aspire to.
Both Philips and Phoenix know that they are telling the story of a villain. It’s not like Fight Club, where Tyler Durden was shown as the powerful sexy embodiment of masculinity, a view so pervasive that many still treat him like a hero when all he was offering was another brand of fascism. Joker knows what Arthur is, and there is very little evidence, at least in my eyes, for confusion on this point.
Joker is a great movie, but not a perfect one and far from a masterpiece. t’s clear that Phoenix knows the character better than his director, who stumbles in the direction of how Arthur’s mental health contributes to his growing violence. Brett Cullen’s Thomas Wayne, a chance to explore an iconic and vital but often unseen character, feels unfortunately cartoonish and thin, and the film is packed full of silly contriviances to push the plot forward that make little sense in the universe it has already set up. Everyone apart from Arthur feels pretty thin and underserved by comparison, a natural pitfall of character pieces like this one, and, without Phoenix’ dazzling central performance, Joker swiftly goes to pieces.
But the fact of the matter is that Phoenix is here to hold proceedings together. As a character study, even as one that blatantly rips off Scorcese and his ilk, even one that retells stories we have seen before, Joker is a distinctly solid movie, one that dips into masterpiece for those moments that Phoenix seems to have total control over Arthur Fleck and his transformation. Is it the movie of the year? No. But it might well be the performance of 2019 to beat.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via The New Yorker)