Among the brouhaha of the last couple of weeks regarding the then-impending release of JOKER, two very different reactions emerged. The first called the film, more or less, a masterclass in acting and storytelling. The other – and arguably more prevalent opinion – labels the film as, for lack of a better term, incel propaganda (whatever that means). Nevertheless, as I walked into the theater today to watch JOKER, I did so with an open mind, as I do for all films that I watch. It feels weird that I have to mention that, as all moviegoers should be doing this anyway. But from many of the opinions and commentaries that have dominated my social media, especially during the last week or so, it is clear that this is not the case at all. Alas, I am now throwing my own opinion out into the ether that is the internet: JOKER is easily among my personal Top 10 films of 2019, and the “controversy” surrounding it is mind-numbingly far-fetched.
Gotham City, 1981. Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) lives a very depressing life. Struggling with a mental disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times, by day he works for a lowly rent-a-clown service. By night, he returns home to his dilapidated apartment, takes care of his ailing mother (played by Frances Conroy), and settles in to watch his idol Murray Franklin’s (played by Robert DeNiro) late-night talk show – all with the sad delusion of one day becoming a stand-up comedian. Around him, Gotham has fallen into disrepair, both economically and socially. As a sanitation workers’ strike turns the city into a literal trash heap of America, Arthur grows increasingly ostracized from a society that doesn’t seem to care all that much about him or his struggles; a society where everyone is just plain rude to each other, all the time – or at least that’s Arthur’s perspective. After one fateful night on the subway, Arthur starts a chain reaction of events that ultimately climaxes with his transformation into Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime.
One cannot begin to have a conversation on JOKER without talking about Joaquin Phoenix; an unsettling and outstanding performance that is sure to be in the conversation for potential awards this season. Some critics see his performance as the definition of “overacting,” but I feel that’s being very unfair to Phoenix as an actor. His portrayal of a man’s slow descent into madness was incredibly chilling, almost to the point where I was mentally gasping for air throughout the film. Amidst the turmoil of his environment, Phoenix does not let up one bit; and while it certainly is disturbing to witness, it’s also equally as mesmerizing.
But I think what makes this particular performance so brilliant is how Phoenix is able to tread the fine line between making Arthur sympathetic and condemning/chastising him. In the first half of the film, you see Arthur’s daily routine – and with it, his daily struggles – in a city just about ready to consume itself. The film wants you to sympathize with him, as that is a natural human reaction to seeing people not only living in poverty but with a mental illness that serves as the cherry on top of a proverbial sundae of misery. It’s not until the film’s second act where the audience realizes that maybe – just maybe – that sympathy was a tad misplaced. In the ensuing chaos of the film’s climax, it’s made abundantly clear that, when all was said and done, this was all Arthur’s doing and no one else’s. While you could argue that his environment helped plant the seed for his eventual madness, it was Arthur that just sat by and let it consume him. Watching Phoenix’s character journey from being a sympathetic loner to an unsympathetic killer – with all the subtleties in between – is what makes his performance not only frightening but unforgettable.
Director Todd Phillips (THE HANGOVER, WAR DOGS) gives us a comic book film that, for all intents and purposes, is not a comic book film in the slightest. More accurately, JOKER should be characterized as a psychological thriller: a character study into the origins of one of pop culture’s greatest supervillains. The screenplay as a whole (co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver) is almost like a manifestation of how the Joker has been classicly portrayed in the comics, in that you never really know the truth. The film blatantly puts out red herrings to confuse the audience and make them doubt whether or not what they are watching is genuinely happening. Not only does this approach ultimately leave the story to audience interpretation, it also increases the film’s rewatchability. Moveover, there are some amazing shots and sequences sprinkled throughout (the most memorable include the train sequence and the entirety of the film’s climax). Phillips and his cinematographer Lawrence Sher brilliantly capture not only a city in moral decay but a man whose sanity is being slowly chipped away with each passing second. Adding to the coldness of the cinematography is the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir; a score so beautifully deranged and chilling as to perfectly mesh with the chaos on-screen, creating a symphony of terror and uneasiness as the audience travels through the story.
I’ll try to keep this brief, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room: is JOKER really a “call-to-arms” for self-pitying loners prone to violence? Absolutely not, and sadly, the critics that are proclaiming this about the film are – in my opinion – letting their personal bias/politics get in the way of honest criticism. In no way, shape, or form does the film support or endorse the violent acts that occur on-screen; on the contrary, the films actually goes out of its way to condemn it. And yes, while the film does put some of the blame for Arthur’s downfall on an uncaring society, it also makes clear that Arthur is to blame for all of it. Those that are looking for something a little more deeper in the film’s subtext are not going to find anything worthwhile, because I feel that this is a film that appears like it has something to say, but that appearance is actually its biggest red herring, Todd Phillips set out to do a character study on The Joker, and that is what you’re getting. That’s not to say that the arguments to the contrary aren’t compelling, but I just think that there’s ultimately nothing to them – and the film’s story and structure seem to support this.
With loving nods to films like TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY, JOKER is another in a long line of unrepentantly violent films to delve deep into a “bad guy’s” psyche: what makes a person go mad? As Heath Ledger’s Joker famously says in THE DARK KNIGHT, “As you know, madness is like gravity – all it takes is a little push.” While the film toys with the idea that one’s environment helps shape the individual – and there is some validity to this – ultimately it is the individual that must bear the burden of their actions. In that sense, the story of JOKER almost comes off as a Shakespearean tragedy – with Arthur unable to resist his demons, letting them transform him into an even more twisted version of himself. What makes this a tragedy is that in this transformation, he has finally found peace. Arthur Fleck is dead: now you can call him ‘Joker.’
And as you can see…he’s a lot happier.
2019 • 122 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Warner Bros. Pictures
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham