The interesting thing about the character of Joker is that he’s always been a counterpart to Batman; there’s no better way to conflict the darkest, most brooding superhero than with a chaotic, colorful force of nature. Without a doubt, Joker is the most iconic super-villain in the history of comics, and his onscreen depiction has become somewhat of a modern day Shakespearean role; it seems that every generation a great actor tries their hand at being the Clown Prince of Crime, with some good (Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman), some bad (Jared Leto in Suicide Squad), and some downright classic (Health Ledger in The Dark Knight).
There’s a power to the character that is inherent, but there’s also a power to how each film chooses to interpret Joker’s ideology, specifically as a foil to the caped crusader. Even in a Batman-less film, it’s clear that the best part of Joker is the performance by Joaquin Phoenix; he’s one of the best actors working today, and here he’s not a villain formed in contrast to Batman, but one molded by society at large. Phoenix is brilliant, and for the most part he’s also a lot better than the movie he’s in.
Phoenix starts off as Arthur Fleck, a for hire clown who’s senselessly beaten in the first few minutes of the film. Fleck has a condition that causes uncontrollable laughter that often physically pains him, isolating him from others. Arthur cares for his sickly mother, but dreams of becoming a comedian like his idol Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talk show host on a local television station.
It goes without saying that Phoenix is terrific in the role- he always is. The key here is that Joker is so clearly written to be an actor’s showcase, and the blueprint it’s working off of isn’t always great. We’re meant to instantly be aware of Arthur’s tragic life, and there’s not necessarily a lot of complexity to a lot of situations (Arthur’s bullies, uncaring therapist, and greedy coworkers all feel like hallmark “movie characters”), but Phoenix is acting his ass off in each scene to make us feel uncomfortable.
Without spoiling anything, a scene in which Arthur tries his hand at standup comedy is perfectly set up; we know as an audience that Arthur won’t be able to handle the situation, and the tension that revolves around the inevitable embarrassment is skin crawling. This is a character that is set up to fail from the beginning, so his evolution into Joker is smartly never treated like a twist. The interesting part of the film lies in how he gets there.
Writer/director Todd Phillips has stated on numerous occasions that he molded the film in the style of 70s Scorsese films, particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and the influence is beyond obvious. Take away a few billboards and you’d have no problem mistaking Gotham City for 1980s New York City; there’s even a classic movie style opening and closing credits that if nothing else make a statement on what type of film Phillips intended to make.
There’s a point when tribute is acceptable, but there’s also a point where it’s homages feel like near duplicates; a scene in which Arthur has an imagined friendship with Murray is so similar to The King of Comedy that it’s hard to give it any credit, although the homages to the mirrors in Taxi Driver are much better handled. Taxi Driver didn’t invent the idea of a guy talking to himself in a mirror, but it’s synonymous for a moment in Travis Bickle’s arc, and in Joker a similar scene marks a major point in Arthur’s life. It’s a great melding of self realization and evolution, and molds this classic scene in a new image.
The point remains that Phoenix is often acting circles around a script that’s not quite as subtle as it thinks it is. Joker rules down its lead character’s motivations to two clear ideas: the treatment of those with mental illness and class differences. Of the two, the depiction of mental illness is vastly more successful; we see up close how stigmatized Arthur is, how he’s taken advantage of by those around him, and how he’s only able to offer a meek explanation for his condition if people give him a chance and hear him out. Even if Arthur’s self awareness is sometimes abrupt (his attempts to make jokes about mental illness in his comedy act come off as a little on the nose), the way he’s treated isn’t necessarily unrealistic.
The film’s handling of class differences, on the other hand, is much less subtle or effective. Arthur is poor- we know this. There are rich people that are mean, and they’re exemplified by Thomas Wayne (Brent Cullen), a billionaire running for mayor.
Cullen is pretty good, but the film’s mishandling of his character is linked to its best aspect; we see everything from Arthur’s perspective. This works well in establishing the Joker character, but when the film starts to make sweeping statements about how Gotham at large has been affected by violence, it mostly comes from TV news reports and expositional dialogue. We hear constantly that people are being inspired to take vengeance against the upper class, but we never see Gotham as a whole because we’re mostly staying with Arthur.
The societal elements also just feel less personal, and thus becomes easier to scrutinize for logical errors. In particular, there’s a subplot featuring two police detectives (played by two of my favorite character actors, Shea Whigham and Bill Camp) that seems to only show up when the script finds it relevant. There’s also an ease and quickness in which events lead to one another and find themselves in the media spotlight; again, this is a 120 minute movie and I can forgive speeding up these things, but a film like Taxi Driver showed Senator Charles Palantine’s influence in a way that intertwined with Travis Bickle’s arc.
The depiction of Arthur’s growing resentment of the upper class also puts him in direct conflict with De Niro’s role as Murray Franklin. Franklin is a great framing device for the film; even before they meet, he has an importance to Arthur and serves as a great way to both feed us information and give Arthur a clear goal. De Niro is perhaps my favorite actor of all-time, and although he’s been through a few years of not having great parts, I’m happy to report that he’s perfect as a local celebrity molded by years of being worshipped.
The handling of other characters in Arthur’s life ranges from brilliant to wasteful, and the clash between restraint and bluntness on the part of Phillips is best represented by the two main female characters. On the one hand, you have Sophie (Zazie Beets), a character who represents a bright spot in Arthur’s life, and gives him someone who is more normal, but may share some of his values. Sophie is a great foil to Arthur whose only flaw is the awkward way she’s introduced, yet her inclusion ends up being one of the film’s best elements once her real purpose in the story is revealed. Phillips puts trust in the fact that we’re going to hear this story out until the end, and takes a storytelling risk that pays odd.
On the other hand, you have Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy). The dynamic between the two is initially interesting, but you get a sense of what it is and what it will be very early on, and it doesn’t leave much room to get any more intersting than that. Phillips puts a strange amount of attention on Arthur learning new things about his mother’s past, and these convoluted plot mechanics only end up proving a point that the film already made about the two. It’s a strange amount of time dedicated to a subplot that goes nowhere that feel misused when considering the other great character actors in the film that Arthur could have interacted with more.
It seems as if I’ve come down as very critical of Todd Phillips, but this is a very well directed film. Even if some visual cues are overused, Phillips has an acute sense of space and framing, and is able to make the claustrophobia of the cramped apartments, subway trains, and comedy clubs almost suffocating in the pressure it puts on Arthur. It’s a colorful film too; even if we don’t see a lot of Gotham, it feels like a vibrant, multifaceted place, and one that could exist both within a graphic novel and a 70s neo-noir film.
The one glaringly off putting element of the film is the music. The score, from Sicario: Day of the Soldado composer Hildur Guðnadóttir is quite menacing and eerie, but is mixed in such a way that is overbearing and distracting. Like some of the weaker script moments, it seems like just more evidence to prove that Arthur has made a change in key scenes, and its extra evidence that we don’t really need. There’s also some baffling song choices; one, during the much hyped stairway scene, is so strange in its placement that it feels like a deliberate means of shocking the audience.
Speaking of shocking the audience, while much has been debated regarding the film’s brutality, the violence itself is done in a way that’s integral to the story. Some might feel that the film is too restrained, but I found the build up to the goriest moments to be effective; this is by no means an action film. When the violence does come, it’s chaotic and not obviously choreographed- there’s an awkwardness to how quickly a situation can escalate and how Arthur becomes spurred into action, and the lack of punches pulled with the realism makes it effectively sickening.
This brings me to my main confusion with the film; for a story that is so deliberate in standing apart from any established cinematic universe, the end of the film marks an awkward combination of genuine consideration of the root of extremism with a fascination with the Joker mythology. This just never melds right; at one instance we feel as if the film is holding a mirror to our own world, but next it’s fulfilling the iconography that we need for something in the DC Universe. Without spoiling anything, these events are tangentially related through themes exploring the cycle and nature of violence, but they feel like they’re at odds with one another and in pursuit of two different goals.
The final act of the film is quite strange, and I’m not entirely sure what Phillips’s intention was. The film seems to go on with a series of scenes that all seem like they could be the actual ending, but when it comes to the choice of final scene, it’s an odd one that seems more focused on leaving an impression than satisfying a viewer. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but the last act is also when some of the worst tendencies of Phillips’s screenplay come out; we’re first met with an interesting ideological clash between Arthur and another character that leads to some interesting sparring, and while it’s end results are effective, they’re preceded by moments where Arthur just spells things out in extended monologues.
Phillips has stated that he wanted to make an adult drama disguised as a comic book movie, and I think he succeeded, but by the same token the very notion that this is a comic book movie will generate more attention than other drama films of this nature would receive. This is a good thing! More people will be talking about a dark, complicated movie than they normally would, and I sincerely hope that many fans that check out Joker will take the time to seek out the films that inspired it. If I had to summarize the main difference between Joker and Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, it’s that its a more intentionally provocative discussion starter, and one that will most certainly be discussed for quite some time. I think Joker will be an interesting footnote in cinema history- Todd Phillips is no Martin Scorsese, but then again, who is? Grade: B+