There seems to be a sudden influx of villains getting their big screen treatment lately (there’s Venom last year, Birds of Prey trailer is just released highlighting Joker’s own girlfriend Harley Quinn, and Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil opens two weeks after Joker). But the again, antiheroes have always made such intriguing protagonists.
In case you’re not aware of this, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker character is NOT based on the comics. It’s an origin story of man named Arthur Fleck who would later become the DC super-villain, and so exists in the same universe as his future arch nemesis Batman in a decaying Gotham City. But writer/director Todd Phillips (who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver) sets the film in the 70s and 80s, an alternate timeline where it can stand alone and wouldn’t disrupt the current (and future) DC superhero movies.
The film opens with Arthur preparing to work as a street clown, holding a sign for a furniture store promoting liquidation sale. He’s suddenly attacked by a bunch of teenage punks who break his sign and beat him up in an alley. To say Arthur is a down-on-his-luck guy would be an understatement. Calamity seems to constantly befallen him as he struggles from paycheck-to-paycheck while living in a cramped apartment with his frail mother Penny (Frances Conroy) with her own delusions of grandeur. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” He asks a social worker. From his visit here, it’s revealed that he’s once admitted to a psychiatric department and is now on seven different medications, none of which help his distorted mind which in his own words is ‘always filled with negative thoughts.’ The first act of the movie pretty much follows Arthur encountering one bad day after another, which initially was captivating, even hypnotic, thanks to Phoenix’s committed performance.
I feel that the movie works largely because of Phoenix’s no-holds-barred approach to the role. He lost so much weight (apparently losing 53 pounds, a la former Batman Christian Bale for The Machinist)–using his physicality practically within an inch of its life. Phoenix also methodically researched patients suffering from Pathological Laughing Disorder that causes them to laugh uncontrollably, and the result is eerie. One can’t help but wince (in both pity and horror) watching him laugh maniacally, as he struggles to contain himself. As mesmerizing as Joaquin is in the role however, his magnetic quality soon wears out thanks to Phillips’ overbearing direction. There are countless scenes of him baring his skeletal frame as he descends into madness, and a plethora of extreme close-ups of his face makes me feel claustrophobic. Even in superhero films like Batman or Superman, there are moments where the hero is off-screen so you can spend time with supporting characters that helps tell one cohesive, layered story. But Philips seems as obsessed with his antihero as much as Arthur worships his idol, TV personality Murray Franklin (a somewhat brilliantly meta casting of Robert De Niro, given the heavy influences of his 70s/80s crime dramas).
But despite having such a strong supporting cast here, all of them are basically reduced to cameos. There’s no room for depth whatsoever for any of them, as the focus is always solely on Arthur. Joaquin is literally in every. single. frame. of the film… all the extreme close ups are almost suffocating, it made me wonder afterwards if perhaps it’s to hide the banality and shallowness of the plot? There are moments that are truly gripping, the stand-up scene at a comedy club (which becomes the catalyst for the final act) comes to mind, but there are also plenty of slow, tedious moments where my mind wander a bit. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack by Hildur Guðnadóttir is often distracting in many scenes that would benefit a quieter music, creating an ominous cacophony that unnecessarily heightens the film’s bleak, joyless tone.
Stylistically, the film is impeccable. The 70s/80s setting is an homage to Phillips’ favorite gritty crime dramas such as Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, which style/tone he heavily borrowed. Even the first violent scene in the subway harkens back memory of The French Connection. The cinematography by Lawrence Sher is stunning despite the decidedly grimy environment, while costume designer Mark Bridges creates a unique look that’s colorful yet dark/ominous at the same time. I also have to give props to the Makeup department team, a crucial area considering the protagonist’s reliance on face mask. Yet the makeup makes the most of Joaquin’s features without hampering an actor’s most important tool, his expressions.
Narratively however, I’m just not too impressed with. While I appreciate that the movie grounds itself in reality–at least showing a semblance of real world as opposed to something fantastical, while also toying with what’s real and what’s not, in the end it’s not as complex as it thinks it is. I believe the fact that Phillips leverages such an iconic comic-book character with such a huge appeal makes the film inherently intriguing. If the film had been called Arthur Fleck and all the Batman references taken out, I’m not sure if the reception would’ve been as strong. That said, those expecting a strong connection with the Dark Knight would be disappointed, as Bruce is just a young boy here. There is a memorable encounter between Arthur and Thomas Wayne however, and the script even toys with a preposterous idea SPOILER ALERT! [highlight to read] that Arthur could be his illegitimate child (thus making him future Batman’s half brother!!), which made me go ‘whoa!’ END SPOILER.
The ending makes it hard not to feel that the filmmakers glorify evil and his abhorrent deeds (something the studio, director and lead actor have denied vehemently). But as Arthur was ‘saved’ by a bunch of hoodlums in clown masks, having been provoked/energized by what he did LIVE on national tv, he suddenly becomes a hero for the marginalized and those ignored by society. It may not be the filmmakers’ intention to hold this character up as a hero, but it sure appears as exactly that in the finale. I find it hard to refute that notion seeing Arthur, which by then has taken up the Joker identity, dressed in full Joker’s colorful regalia and iconic bloody smile, dancing euphorically on top of a car, as throngs of clown-masked men cheer him on.
If there was a commentary about the haves and the have-nots in Gotham, it’s only mentioned fleetingly, there’s no compelling sociopolitical message to be found here. Despite his utter disdain for the wealthy, how has Arthur himself care for or support the have-nots? He’s too busy wallowing in self pity, filled with rage and hell-bent on violent revenge. He fantasizes about his crush Sophie (Zazie Beetz) down the hall, but doesn’t give a hoot the fact that she is a single mother and also barely scraping by. The filmmaker doesn’t seem to care for the likes of her either, other than for the purpose of advancing his character’s narrative. Ultimately, Arthur lives in his own bubble, trapped by his narcissistic mind that he can’t possibly see the suffering of others. Thus, it’s rather incredulous that a fraught-minded person like Arthur would become someone who could inspire the masses in this way. Thus, that final scene seems to come out of nowhere, it doesn’t feel earned nor arrives at organically.
While one could argue that Joaquin is as phenomenal as Joker as Heath Ledger was (though I wouldn’t say he topped Ledger’s performance), I’d say that the fact that Christopher Nolan chose NOT to give the Joker an origin story in The Dark Knight actually makes him more effective. He’s a true agent of chaos, as Alfred Pennyworth says he’s the kind of man who, ‘can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with… a man who just wants to see the world burn.’ There’s a calculating, sly, even sophistication in Ledger’s Joker’s megalomaniacal ways, who’s always in control and two steps ahead of his adversaries.
Arthur’s Joker however, is a tragic character… a mentally-unstable loner who supposedly becomes evil because of circumstances. This film blatantly connects his homicidal urges and violent retributions to the fact that society wronged him, i.e. being bullied, unable to get meds due to social services getting cut, etc. It’s as if the film skirts responsibility and steers the blame away from Arthur, no matter how heinous his crime, painting him more as a victim than perpetrator. One would be hard-pressed not to see the danger that such notion could be used as an excuse for certain people inciting chaos and revenge on those they deem as ‘deserving the violence,’ hence the US military issuing warning against possible shooting at Joker screenings. There’s even extra beefed-up security at the press screening, which I think is warranted.
One might argue the number of violent scenes here is actually not as much as those depicted on cable tv these days. But given the character’s sheer unpredictability, the heavy sense of dread makes it feel like it’s more vicious. I definitely discourage parents from bringing their kids to see this, not even young teens. This film earns a hard R for a reason. Now, it’s always debatable whether art incites violence, and I for one thinks it’s a slippery slope whenever there’s a call for art censorship. By the same token, every content creator must be at least being mindful of how its creation could be interpreted as, and in this case, how it could inspire something that causes harm or be used to justify vigilantism.
Setting all that aside, the big question is, did the movie live up to the hype–even my own given my excitement when the first Joker trailer was released? Well, it certainly turns out to be a chilling origin story of a tragic character, but more so because of Phoenix’s performance than the film’s direction. Yet I find it tough to root for his character, despite initially feeling sympathy towards him. It’s an unrelentingly grim and utterly bleak affair from start to finish, it’d be tough to put on a happy face after you watch it. The irony isn’t lost on me that a movie featuring a character who thinks his purpose is ‘to bring laughter and joy to the world’ turns out to mostly devoid of either. In terms of re-watchability, this is not one of those films I’m keen on revisiting.
Have you seen JOKER? I’d love to hear what you think!