I made an offhand remark to my brother before we went in to our screening of Joker comparing Batman and his arch-nemesis to contemporary facets of pop culture equivalent to great historical works like Homer’s Odyssey, or works of Shakespeare. That’s to say, there’s a history rich enough and popularity and understanding of the original material that allows for such wildly different interpretations of that source. The Odyssey has O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Henry IV got My Own Private Idaho. And in 2019, DC’s Clown Prince of Crime gets, well, Joker.
Maybe not straying as far from its roots as the aforementioned adaptations, a mere glance tells you Joker is trying for something different. What felt like a cavalcade of “this isn’t your typical comic-book movie” comments led to the release, with the mention of classic Martin Scorsese films as points of reference garnering film buff cred far and wide. The anticipation for Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the character, following Heath Ledger’s superb Dark Knight outing and Jared Leto’s trashfire-waltz in Suicide Squad, was another major factor. We caught glimpses of trailers featuring a grimy New York aesthetic, and tonal boldness calling out urban decay. The film was mutating into an odd beast.
Then Joker took the Golden Lion at Venice, and its early reactions praised it to high heaven. It was a cultural phenomenon before it hit US theaters.
I had my own misgivings towards the film, put off by what I felt was a smugness exuded by some involved and a self-righteousness to the production. I also couldn’t help but doubt just about anything Warner Bros. puts out with DC, their attempt at competing with Disney and Marvel decent at best, abysmal at worst.
Yet I was curious to see just what the fuss was about. Any film this big, its subject matter bold and uncompromising in a time where the real life headlines are looking closer and closer to the films we watch, must be worth something. Which is to ultimately say, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Joker walking out of it. I had my wariness and a morbid curiosity going in, and an incessant, running analysis of the film walking out. Our own Matthew Razak’s review hits a lot of nails on the head for me, but I can’t help but feel a draw towards Phillips’ film. Sort of the way you put your hand towards something you know is hot, just to feel the burn. Intense, right? Not unlike the movie! Though what Joker is undeniably, is a very, very interesting film. I can’t think of the last time something like this, which I feel a degree of disgust and dislike towards, made me want to yak on and on and on… So lend me an ear if you can.
From the Ashes of Gotham
It seems logical to start with the man himself, right? Joaquin Phoenix is a guy who knows madness; tension bubbling under the skin like steam under a pot. His performance as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master will, I think, always be his greatest performance. But whereas Freddie’s story allowed for a degree of more subtle, psychological analysis, Arthur Fleck is something of a zeitgeist in and of himself.
We’re practically introduced to Arthur as he’s taking a beating from street kids, casually acknowledged (an issue with Joker‘s story, I think; more on that later) by co-workers at the clowning agency he so-dutifully reports to. The ways in which Phoenix, as Arthur, takes and delivers beatings in Joker is a big part of his craft, and the key to the visceral, gutsy overall punch the film may or may not pack for its viewers. Following the beating we see Arthur, shirtless and hunched over at the office, his back bruised purple and yellow, his spine nearly poking through his emaciated frame. Phoenix’s body becomes Arthur, and really, the Joker’s greatest prop throughout the film, used in different ways by the two personalities that struggle for domination until one becomes the other.
There’s an underlying sense of contortion to Arthur; Phoenix in an interview mentioned a sense of being “uncomfortable” and “wound-up” as the failed comedian. The scene where we catch his bruised body he’s hunched over, breaking in his bulbous clowning shoes. There’s a pull, a stretch he’s exercising, bracing the shoes as hard as he can, pushing as hard as he can. It’s clear visual iconography of something waiting to give, as Phoenix plays Arthur.
And his sense of dangling from a thread is given context. Living alone with his mother, working a failing job, and being mentally ill, being medicated for it. These are factors that I think the film underutilizes, but certainly introduces as aspects of Arthur’s existence that make him the way he is. Phoenix plays up a gentle-caretaker role with his mother that becomes increasingly anxious and disturbed as things progress, one of the more-interesting aspects of the film’s story. The way in which Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) acts as a bastion from the smoking, trash-heaped streets of Gotham is clear in the expression on Arthur’s face. He cares for this woman, bathing her and feeding her. It’s only when the outside world begins to creep in that the relationship becomes more cynical and leering on Arthur’s part.
The Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) angle, where Arthur’s potential relationship with the billionaire mayoral-hopeful is explored, increasingly wedges a divide between Arthur and his mother. Her memory of the Waynes, exposing her own ailing psyche and signs of dementia, complicates Arthur’s definition of himself as well as reels the outside world into the confines of his home. Wayne, whose politicking and denouncement of the downtrodden pisses Arthur right off, could be… his father? The eventual encounter and subsequent disappointment of that meeting only further pushes Arthur down a well of loneliness. And it only takes so long until a guy snaps.
We catch it in bursts here and there, but two moments of really terrific, purely-physical acting on Phoenix’s part stand out to me, one after and one before an act of brutal violence. Gunning three scummy Wall Street-types down in the subway, Arthur dashes madly (Joaquin Phoenix running in movies is genre in itself), stopping in a slimy bathroom. Exasperated, he’s coming to terms with what he’s just done. He’s hyperventilating, he’s scared, and he starts to do yoga. Later, fully made up as Joker, the title clown is behind the curtain, moments away from entering live television on the Murray Franklin show. Much to the befuddlement of the backstage operators besides him, what does the Joker do? He starts to dance.
Arthur/Joker’s episodes of sporadic movement, equal parts stretching, yoga, and interpretive dancing, are the total opposite of the tight ball of a man we saw hunched over early in the film. Phoenix imbues the character with a true sense of his own body. For Arthur, the world is a prison from which his means of escape are insanity, suicide, or, in the way Phoenix gives us, his own body. Expression through his movement, putting his body through rigorous self-strain or battering by street thugs is maybe the “unhealthy” Arthur. Stretching in the gross men’s room, working himself into a state of relaxation for his TV appearance; this is Arthur/Joker transcending his own flesh in a way, working his body as an outlet for the madness he perceives in everything around him.
All actors play their roles physically, but the way in which Phoenix alternates between the bestial, desperate running through the streets and the self-absorbed and leering moonwalking and limboing of the Joker is an impressive and methodical feat of immersive performing.
But What’s it All About?
For as impressive as Phoenix’s murderous Rupert Pupkin is, the nuance of his performance is about the highest peak Joker reaches. Its lead character is a martyr at the center of a lost cause, or a general leading a war fought for nothing. Joker stuffs its world with allusions to narrative depth and social relevance, but loses much of it through its sledgehammer approach to social commentary and inconsistency in its storytelling. The unsubtle, broad approach Joker takes to its story was perhaps what failed most, and feels like the biggest miss of opportunity in a film that has the tools for making compelling, thoughtful comment on how divisions are formed in society.
Arthur’s work as a clown-for-hire is one of the few things that keeps him “real.” A lot of people hate their jobs, some more seriously than others; you might work a grueling job or jobs to pay bills, keep something in your stomach, and maybe have some left to indulge a bit. The lucky ones of us have work that can afford a comfortable and enjoyable life, padded by material pleasures and emotional comfort that can be enjoyed because of a stable income and series of relationships (themselves founded on a role in the world that is afforded by having money; isn’t life crazy?). Grim thought that might be for some, working, “making a living” keeps us going; it’s a societally-imposed reason to get up in the morning. Arthur, still playing by society’s rules, is actually terrific at what he does. Phoenix’s physicality in the role was something touched upon earlier, but the smoothness of his clowning and movement is really the kind of coordination displayed only by someone in control of their body and aware of their physicality. So why doesn’t anyone give a shit?
Arthur is remarked as “weird” by his boss and co-workers (and they’re pretty much right) but the skill he unquestionably brings to his job isn’t acknowledged. The answer to that non-question is that life is cruel, people are out for themselves, and if you aren’t seen at the top of a newspaper or on the glow of a TV screen, people just won’t pay you a moment’s notice. Joker dabbles in the ills of media-saturation, with Arthur’s obsessive relationship with the Murray Franklin Show, its titular host (Robert De Niro) a suave and smooth-talking Johnny Carson-like whose stardom enamors the struggling Gothamite. The idea that Arthur wants to be a somebody and sees televised-fame as his means to an end is facet of Joker that seems ripe for further prodding. It’s when Franklin airs footage of Arthur’s failed stand-up set that the relationship goes from model/hopeful aspirant to has and has-not. Love turns to hatred, evident in Joker’s… explosive performance on Murray’s show. It’s perhaps the scene where Joker appears onstage that Joker works best as a movie.
Walking out on stage, we get the feeling that the scene is unfolding as a wildly different thing for different people in that room. Murray sees a curiosity in Fleck; one of the city’s eccentrics who might be of interest, and will at least make an interesting episode for the show. The audience initially sees some nutcase in makeup, making for another night of mindless, riotous comedy. For our main clown, Arthur steps onto the stage, and Joker steps off.
He remarks, a little quietly, in awe, how the show was just as he’d imagined it; Arthur has reached nirvana. Meanwhile, Murray cracks a joke and the audience laughs. Business as usual. In his awestruck state, Arthur rambles some, with the triple murder on the subway comes up, stopping the laughter quicker than a reflection hitting a mirror. It’s a pivotal moment for Arthur and the Joker, where the former comes to terms with being the latter. Admitting to the satisfaction in killing the lowlife hecklers on the train, Arthur becomes, maybe for the first time, comfortable. It’s also worth remember that at this point he’s been off of his medication for a good portion of the film, any haze induced by the sedatives wearing off. He’s cast bare into the spotlight and realizes that he’s okay with being “crazy,” ugly a word that may be.
Following his on-air admission of guilt, the audience turns on Arthur, booing and denouncing him, at which the Joker comes out to play. He heckles them back, calling out their cowardice and hypocrisy. Not a minute ago he was some weirdo source of entertainment. Who are these people to decide he’s actually a monster? What right do they have? The scene follows its runaway train course to televised murder and rioting in the streets, which further leads into a question for Joker as a movie: So what?
Art doesn’t need to provide answers, because anything I’ve started to think about as a result of seeing Joker is, in a way, the only answer art could provide me. But it’s a valid question to pose: What’s the point? Arthur gives in to Joker, who Phoenix himself is clear in framing as a villain. Arthur’s mental liberation, only to yield to the savagery of the Joker, is supposed to be the film’s purpose? Our “happy ending?” Or is Joker so bold as to end on not a happy ending at all, but instead one in which society crumbles and a murderous clown and his anarchic emulators dance on its flaming debris? I can’t say for certain, but that would be my take, making Joker a pretty bold statement but one not clear enough to bring anything new to the table.
Besides ending with a bit of a shrug in regards to its purpose, Joker hits some bumps with the literal pacing of its ending. We get the terrific pull-out shot of the Murray Franklin aftermath on a monitor, alongside dozens of other monitors, which felt as if that’s where things should cut. Cue anarchic, catchy end credit music, and we’re good. Instead the film goes on, with street riots and an excessive tie-in with the Caped Crusader’s traumatic origins. Eh, fine. Whether they want to admit it or not, Joker is a comic book movie! But then, amidst the crowd, carried like a messianic cadaver, our titular jester rouses from the car accident that derails his police escort, reborn in streets brimming with shattered glass and fire. End here, with some degree of social revolution igniting Gotham further? Forget musings of a sequel, but this is the sort of environment Bruce Wayne eventually becomes so disgusted with that he starts dressing up like a bat; if a downbeat ending is the point, doesn’t it seem logical to end with a smile and the end of the world? But no!
Instead we’re thrust into the confines of Arkham Hospital, with Joker detained and once again across from his psychiatrist (Sharon Washington). Her implied murder and Joker’s wild rebellion against his captors end our story. It just felt like a series of sneezes not fully realized; a movie whose momentum was building gradually towards its end, only to stop for gas briefly at a crucial point. Not a deal-breaker in Joker‘s lasting impact, but something that could perhaps benefit from either 30 minutes more or 30 minutes less.
That’s to say, I think the minimal plot of Joker, working in a tonal, character-centric approach is perfectly fine. We don’t need elaborate twists and turns because Arthur’s transformation is the star of the show, and Phoenix sustains our attention throughout. Yet there are logical inconsistencies with the “hard facts” of Joker‘s world and some extraneous moments of style that felt head-scratching. On the flip side, if the film opted to add more substance to its world, perhaps the hints at a greater picture beyond Arthur’s apartment would seem more worthwhile. It would be a very different film, so I don’t necessarily advocate for it. But if you’re going to introduce Thomas Wayne as a Donald Trump stand-in, whose blithely-wealthy and posh approach to social programs and urban renewal is so clearly “the bad guy stance,” how can you have a film that might proclaim to be one about social issues when it’s so one-sided?
If Gotham’s bureaucracy is comprised of corrupt businessmen who want to try the whole politics thing, and the needy and desperate poor are violent, abhorrent sociopaths like Arthur and those who would riot alongside him, once ask again, what’s the point? Joker ultimately provides a visceral, engaging experience but one that does no more than bring a subject to the table, asking the audience to start from square one with thinking about class and urban infrastructure. But as we saw with Phoenix’s performance, there are things that can sustain Joker as a worthwhile and even impressive film, not the least of which is the movie’s style.
Does it Smell the Way it Looks?
An easy avenue into discussing Phillips’ film is the look of our story. The clear inspiration from the Scorsese films of the ’70s and ’80s is made literal in Joker‘s early-1980’s Gotham, itself modeled on New York from the early days when Batman co-creator Bill Finger was still writing, is apparent almost immediately. Arthur takes a yellow sunlight-stained bus to and from work or his psychiatrist; a long trudge upstairs (more on this a little later) gets him to his dingy apartment, the walls cracked and the furniture sunken. There’s a sanitation strike on, with bags of garbage piling up in the streets (Phillips perhaps referencing Lynne Ramsay’s excellent Ratcatcher), and mounting tensions over crime and an urban infrastructure waiting to buckle completely under the weight of a general feeling of malaise and nihilistic weariness. Peachy, huh?
By fleshing out a city coming to a boil, the Joker team attempts to contextualize how a man like Arthur, sick though he may be, could become something as unhinged and supervillainous as the Joker. The idea that presenting a city, an extreme version of an already-dire landscape (’70s NYC) as a factor in a character’s development isn’t anything new, but it doesn’t feel like something we get to see in genre films like comic book ones. The MCU is great, but how much of Tony Stark’s upbringing as extremely wealthy do we get from his character? Even Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, seemingly considered by most to be the benchmark by which comic book adaptations are judged, frame Bruce Wayne as someone whose evolution into Batman is fueled by a sense of morality instilled by his traumatic childhood. In Joker, Arthur’s gradual spiral into the clown killer’s persona is exacerbated by living in the thick of it.
Visually, Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher practice the basics (but they’re basics for a reason!) of character study. We get long, silent holds on Phoenix’s face contorting or, more frightening, remaining a blank slate of unpredictability. The stillness to some of Arthur’s scenes and their accompanying silence are builds to explosions, at times, but others are simply left to linger as unspoken menace.
The sound design of the film is particularly critical in developing the city in which we live for the runtime. Joker opens with radio chatter; the aforementioned trash strike and the oppressive, hot weather. Televisions flicker with mind-numbing sales pitches or news clips. Joker populates its soundscape with a density evoking a headache, at times, simulating a gnawing sense of “too much.” And that’s not even speaking to the music.
With Hildur Guðnadóttir providing a series of original pieces for Joker‘s recurrent themes and melodies, there’s a grandiosity instilled, though one perhaps too familiar. The music doesn’t particularly lash out the way the film’s subject presents an unpredictable, sporadic agent of anarchy. The score is a little safe, in regards to the subject; I’d be curious to see how things could have played out if Joker went down a more-experimental route with its music. Something along the lines of the abstract twangs and rough, unusual sounds of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre might feel more appropriate.
In using pre-existing tracks, Joker stumbles a bit more overtly. After his televised murder and the ensuing rioting in the streets we get Eric Clapton’s wailing guitar on “White Room,” which comes across as a bit of an arbitrary choice; something exciting and booming to accompany the film’s crescendo. A little more irritating is “Rock & Roll Part 2,” used during Arthur’s transformative dance down the long staircase he once stomped up slowly. It’s interesting in that we’re presented with extra-diegetic music that stems from the film’s creators, though Joker dances and swerves as if hearing the music. It’s some of the more-overt fourth-wall breaking the movie does. And to its credit, though the choice of music may be inappropriate, the parallel between Arthur trudging upstairs and Joker frolicking down them is one of the best metaphors in the movie: A man who struggles to keep up with the world, and another who gleefully descends with it, wherever things may lead.
However, the struggle that Joker’s Gotham shows us is, at times, perhaps too grim for its own good. Life is cruel, and the real-life New York of the 70’s was a place every bit as grimy and gritty as one could imagine, with subsequent decades fueled by mob violence and drug epidemics. But an important part of creating a dire environment is to give the audience a glimmer of hope; a flower between the cracks in the pavement.
I mentioned earlier the beating Arthur takes at the hands of some punks near the film’s start. A traumatic thing! If this happened to a co-worker of yours no doubt your job would acknowledge this in some way, and people might reach out condolences. In Joker, Arthur’s beating is a casual occurrence, hardly blinked at. Gotham’s resting state is one of violence against its denizens such that Joker almost becomes a caricature at times with its excessive unpleasantness. There’s zero sanctuary to be found in the film, which starts to make it all blend together and feed further into a lack of opposition in creating a story. You can share a bleak, bleak vision through art, but there needs to be some context for that hopelessness; shallow waters to give in to an abyssal deep end. To quote everyone’s favorite fascistic future cop, Judge Dredd, “It’s all a deep end.”
As I write, I realize that despite my misgivings and doubts, I did enjoy Joker. It’s a film that presents a radical portrayal of an iconic character, and though its reliance on some “easy” filmic points of reference resonated as being perhaps too familiar, you steal from the best, right? It was never that I was bothered by Joker wearing its influences on its sleeve, because truly, art imitates art in perpetuity. But the unflappable feeling of being hollow, despite its sound and fury, gnawed at me and does still.
What we get then is a good, maybe great piece of pulp. Joaquin Phoenix is as volatile as ever, and the hints of style–excessive though they may be–bring a taste to comic book filmmaking that we simply haven’t seen before (although I’ll always swear that The Crow is the best comic book movie ever made). And though it might be a troubled case when it comes to deciding what exactly it wants to say, it maybe then embodies the sort of teenage angst that we can feel even if we don’t recognize it; a juvenile but honest feeling of anger and tiredness with one’s environment where you can only see the downside. Whether you feel it once for a second or more often than you’d like, it seems like a state that might naturally pass over all of us. Joker incarnates those feelings of hopelessness and violent rage in the way a naive young person might express themselves, and is maybe fascinating and cathartic because of it.
Though please, just don’t put on makeup and heckle strangers!