Joker is a genuinely startling experience. It’s the sort of film that’s been pitched and promised when most comic book movies are in development but never delivered. It doesn’t reinvent the mass popular sub-genre. Instead, it shows new colours the comic book movie can apply to its canvas.
Taking inspiration from two Martin Scorsese films (Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy) and graphic novel- The Killing Joke: Joker is about a down on his luck clown performer and aspiring comedian called Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Coping with chronic emotional incontinence (mostly taking the form of continual laughter) and violent attacks, the downtrodden Fleck tries to keep his sanity intact, when a series of personal revelations come to light.
Joker’s most remarkable feat is in filtering the usual aspects of the sub-genre through a unique lens. Rather than portraying numbing fantasy violence, its depiction of aggressive acts is delivered with the chilly suddenness of an ice pack to the head, never feeling sensualist or comical. In some moments, it feels even tougher then Christopher Nolan’s heightened reality interpretation. Likewise, the bleak portrait of its world and central character permeate the entire proceedings as opposed to being an act one set-up. Even Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score: comprised of slow haunting drums and whining cellos go against the usual bombast.
Joker is a true character study in the vein of Taxi Driver. Much like Robert De Niro’s blue-collar cabbie, Fleck is a man who is trying to find purpose, even if it comes through violent means. At the same time, they both share a sense that society has abandoned them, so they both decide to embrace their darker impulses to rattle their respective worlds.
Bickle was a disillusioned Vietnam veteran, whose violent acts could either be interpreted as targeting the political hypocrisy of his age or a knight in shining armour for conservative values. In contrast, Fleck’s motives are vainer. He seeks to fulfil a sense of satisfaction by letting people know he exists and that he no longer be mocked for being an outsider. In this way, Fleck is like a blood-soaked Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy. De Niro’s casting as an aged famous chat show host- Murray Franklin feels like a meta continuation of Pupkin finally gaining notoriety.
Phoenix is simply riveting as Fleck. While the actor’s trademark intensity is on full display (especially in his facial expressions that portray his excruciating attempts to contain his condition), Joker is a reminder of how much Phoenix is adept at portraying loss and woundedness. The character is like a child in a man’s body who does not quite know how to interact with the world. In fact, this childlike quality juxtaposed with his violent acts make for some of Joker’s most disturbing scenes, particularly in the last act.
Aesthetically, the film is thankfully not a Scorcese tribute act in clown makeup. Rather, director Todd Philips favours still and composed wide shots with lots of detail as opposed to fast-moving long takes. One particularly striking example is a scene where Fleck is frantically emptying his fridge, whilst his phone goes off in the background. Initially, starting out as a medium shot, Philips subtly widens the shot, giving the impression that we’re watching a piece of footage of an unhinged man, that’s just been captured.
The film’s central problem is in feeling politically empty. The beginning sets up a garbage strike via radio broadcast and some general impoverished versus rich rhetoric. Fleck’s first set of murders is in a clown suit, which results in the clown becoming a symbol. While this somewhat feels conceptually sound, the execution is maddening, almost as though the film becomes bored with presenting its views fully.
Crucially, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in his speech calls the citizens of Gotham- clowns. However, this moment is remarked upon in a media report then shown in its proper context. The garbage strike is just a world-building flourish that does not have narrative significance. And the impoverished versus rich political dimension tends to feel deficient with the execution of its connective tissue of going from A to B.
Consequently, some of the imagery in the last act lacks the social/political potency that it’s aiming for and becomes lesser for it. In fact, Fleck is politically apathetic and even says in his chat show declaration that his murders were not intended to make a political point. Instead, it feels as though this aspect exists to illustrate the Joker’s trademark desire for mass chaos, rather than make genuine political points, other than the hollow rich vs poor dynamic.
Joker does keep one foot in its comic book character’s portrayal insofar as retaining the Clown Prince of Crime’s vague origin. In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, Batman’s arch-nemesis says “If I were to have a past, I’d prefer it to be multiple choice.”
The film takes this mantra and uses it as a backbone in depicting Arthur Fleck as a delusional person, who makes up entire aspects of his story. This is particularly illustrated in his relationship with neighbour- Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz). The unreliable narrator aspect of the character mirrors the final moments of Taxi Driver insofar as Bickle’s violent actions lead to a positive sense of gratitude from society at large.
In Joker, this results in a tantalising ambiguity of whether the whole film is a fantasy of the character creating a chaotic society that leads to his arch nemesis’s creation, a flip on the usual theme of Batman’s presence resulting in the emergence of his rogue’s gallery.
But even stripped of this element, Joker is horrifying because it’s about a mentally broken and unstable person becoming the iconic DC Comics’ villain; turning the usual agent of chaos conception into something far more tragic and terrifying. This is not a Joker that warrants anti-hero adoration much like Heath Ledger’s portrait or Fight Club’s, Tyler Durden. Instead, it’s a cautionary tale to never leave behind the pitiable.