There’s been a lot of debate about Joker since its wild success on the festival circuit over its portrayal of a troubled, lonely, white male becoming the violent mouth piece for a social uprising. Then there’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not that discussion should even be happening since most people haven’t seen the movie.
Well, I’ve seen it now.
We should be having that discussion. Joker is a deeply troubling film.
Director: Todd Phillips
Release Date: October 4, 2019
Joker is an origin story but for the bad guy (kind of). We’re introduced to Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally troubled individual in 1970s Gotham City, which isn’t even trying to not be New York. He lives alone with his mother, has a mental condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably no matter what he’s feeling, and feels disconnected from society. Society, in turn, is falling apart for those on the lower end of the poverty line and in the background of Fleck’s rapidly declining life is social unrest and growing hatred towards the wealthy. One of those wealthy is Thomas Wayne, who is weighing a mayoral run to get the city back on track. Thus, when Fleck, at one of his lowest moments kills three asshole bankers on a train while dressed as a clown his visage becomes the face of a social movement (think Guy Fawkes) and the Joker is slowly, very slowly, born.
Here’s the thing: a film about a mentally unstable man not getting the support he needs and becoming a sociopathic killer is topical, especially as Joker dives into subjects of class, wealth, and elitism. Art is here to help us unpack the world around us and comic books have been doing that since before Captain America punched Hitler in the face — superheroes and villains are our modern myths. The problem with Joker is that it only thinks it’s making a point. It only thinks it’s smart. It is the Western town facade set up for a John Wayne movie. The film may think it is saying something but it offers up little behind its glorification of its subject matter. Fleck is clearly disturbed but we’re not given any other data points.
This, in turn, leads to a film that 100 percent glorifies the Joker, turning him into a sort of anti-hero and excusing, if not supporting, his actions. Director Todd Phillips may protest all he likes but the final outcome is that despite all the horrors Joker commits in the movie he is the film’s hero, boldly taking out the corrupt system around him that would never give him a fair shake. If we’re supposed to see another side to this — some more layers to the story — Phillips does a terrible job at showing them. We are presented with Arthur Fleck turning into the Joker and not given any hint that his downward spiral is anything but justified. You could argue we need to bring our own morality to the tale but part of a piece of art’s job is to help the audience unpack what’s going on. There’s no back-and-forth within the film itself so that when the Joker finally arrives, his bold proclamations about why he exists seem like excuses to justify violence, not commentary on societal issues.
It does take a very long time for the Joker to turn up. This is far more Arthur Fleck’s story than it is Joker’s and Phoenix does a lot with the role. He chews up scenery as his mental state fluctuates from childlike to arrogant to angry to effeminate. He is oddly disturbing throughout the film and turns even the most benign moments into perturbing story points. It’s a tour de force of a performance that ends up signifying nothing. The unfortunate thing is the film Arthur Fleck would probably have played a lot better but once Joker starts making his appearance it all starts unraveling into an uncomfortable anti-hero story. Unless the movie’s point is to defend the actions of troubled murderers then it fails at making a point.
Aside from the film’s troubling messaging, or lack thereof, it is a technically and visually stunning movie. Phillips crowds the rundown Gotham onto the screen as if it is an oppressive, uncaring monster that only opens up once Fleck loses himself to the Joker. He litters the film, for better or worse, with past references to previous takes on the Joker and his shooting of Phoenix is often masterful as the actor delivers a career defining performance. He keeps the camera trained on him for uncomfortable periods of time, allowing the actor’s minute facial performance to unfold, almost always keeping him as the focus of every shot. It’s visually powerful but once again leads to complex issues of glorifying the Joker’s actions that never get settled.
As noted, the real problems for the film stem from its conclusion, which almost feels rushed, compared to the slow burn that is Arthur Fleck’s unraveling mental state. To begin, we never really get the payoff of the Joker being the Joker. The film culminates on the set of a TV show in which the Joker delivers an awkward monologue that seems disconnected from the themes of the rest of the film as riots explode outside. It all culminates in what can only be seen as a victory for Joker and the mob as they overthrow the rich “tyrants” of Gotham, with one casualty being the death of Thomas Wayne and his wife (MARTHA!) in an alley in front of their son Bruce.
Yes, that’s right. The film is actually a Batman origin story… again. This time they took two hours, made it art house, and masked it as a Joker origin, but in the end, we once again see Batman born. It isn’t needed at all and feels incredibly dishonest to the rest of the character piece we just watched, whether or not that film was morally troubling or not. Joker, if nothing else, feels like a stand-alone commentary than a movie birthing a superhero franchise, and yet here is Bruce Wayne standing in an alley once again, his parents tangentially dead because of the Joker. It may seem like a silly gripe but it affects the entire film’s already worrisome tenor.
There is a pressing and interesting character study to be found in Joker but Phillips can’t find it. He’s too focused in on the social commentary to find the character, leaving Phoenix to do all the heavy lifting in that department. It isn’t really enough. That makes Joker an interesting movie but not actually a good one. It means there’s plenty to discuss but not in the ways that you want to discuss it. It opens up dialog, as good art should, but never delivers on a conversation, as great are does. Joker is the film that the Joker would release as some sort of Andy Kaufman-esque final act against Gotham city. A film that seems to revel in its moral ambiguity, that sets off arguments, not debate. The last laugh of someone who simply wants to watch the world burn.