This pretty much seems to me like the most divisive film of recent times. There is a strict dividing line when it comes to reactions to Todd Phillips’ Joker. On the one hand, you have the “in favour” crowd: the people who think this is the best DC film in years, who think Joaquin Phoenix has delivered an award-worthy performance, who think this is a transcendentally relevant commentary on critical aspects of modern life. And then there are the others: the ones who seem to think Joker is propaganda for mass shooters, who think the film is an ugly, grim mess, a production that ruins the titular character by explaining everything about him.
Where did I stand before I took in Joker? I was unsure. I couldn’t help but be impressed by some of the early critical praise, as much as I was concerned by the much less impressive second waves of reviews. Joker seemed like something of a cultural touchstone, the love-it-or-hate-it media of 2019 that the battlelines are being drawn down on either side of, and I confess that part of the appeal of seeing Joker, aside from the usually impressive Phoenix, was to see on what side I would find myself on. So, was Joker the best DC film since The Dark Knight, or is is just a pale ghost of what Heath Ledger was able to accomplish under Christopher Nolan?
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed down-on-his-luck clown who dreams of being a stand-up comedian, struggling to take care of his ailing mother in an aggressively uncaring Gotham City. When he commits an act of sudden violence, after being picked on one too many times, he is inadvertently propelled into being the face of Gotham’s disenfranchised, even as he descends into greater and greater madness.
Well, I certainly fall squarely down on one side or the other. I went into Joker with some high enough expectations, and came out excessively disappointed. Joker is a disaster on multiple levels, and easily slots in next to Zero Dark Thirty, Bridge Of Spies and The Hateful Eight as one of the most over-rated movies of recent times.
Where to begin on this train-wreck? I was thinking about what bothered me the most about Joker, and I suppose the central irritant comes down to protagonists and antagonists. It’s perfectly possible to make a film where the antagonist is the main character, something in the Macbeth mold, but the absolutely critical thing is that this character needs to be presented as the antagonist, and not the secret hero. Much like Maleficent, another badly thought out attempt to flip alignments on an iconic villain, Joker can’t but place the heroes clothes on its main character.
It does this by making him sympathetic, a sad sack beaten down by the world. There isn’t anything wrong with that. It does this by showing him as having a desire to be liked and loved by the people around him. Nothing wrong with that either. It does this by showing him as a man suffering a mental illness and struggling to be anything other than awkward and off-putting to the people around him. Nothing wrong with any of that.
But then Arthur Fleck starts killing people, and Arthur Fleck starts abusing children and then Arthur Fleck starts developing a bit of a God complex, and then he kills a few more people, and yet still Joker presents him as the hero, literally surrounded by a cheering crowd at the film’s conclusion, a saviour of the underprivileged and the disenfranchised.
Ever and anon in the course of this journey Todd Phillips makes certain narrative decisions that can only be seen as rationalising and excuse making for Fleck’s behavior, making every negative point of his arc somebody else’s fault. The people around him are irredeemable assholes, and Fleck is the target for their bullying until he snaps and becomes an anarchist Spartacus. In the first sequence of the film he gets jumped by a gang of kids for no clear reason (not entirely unbelievable) who then beat him up spouting z-level lines like “He’s weak” and “Beat him up!” (one of several violent scenes that mirror real-life crime, only whitewashed to a troubling extent).
His co-workers belittle and lie to him. His boss thinks he’s a creepy liar. The woman on the bus is rude to him for no real reason. The drunk womanisers that he shoots on the train are mean to him. Thomas Wayne, portrayed as an elitist snob who parrots Ayn Rand as part of a campaign to become Mayor (he also refers to malcontent poor people as “clowns”, and might as well say “deplorables” if the director/writer were more honest with their intentions), is a rich asshole who punches Arthur in the face. The cops who come to question him about the murders give his mom a stroke and later shoot an innocent protester. His mom lies to him all the time, and was abusive to him as a child. Robert De Niro’s talk show host mocks him for cheap yucks. It’s amazing how everyone around Fleck treats him so badly, almost like its an exercise in manufactured reality, a fantasy that has no basis in reality.
All of these characters are negative influences, and almost solely negative influences. They are presented as mean-spirited, rude, abusive awful people, and all so Phillips can present their inevitable comeuppance and demise, sometimes at the hands of the Joker, sometimes at the hands of the mob he inflames, as just desserts, as getting there’s. Thomas and Martha Wayne are not killed here in a mugging gone wrong, they are killed because they are rich and Thomas Wayne is an asshole. Phoenix’s Fleck might be a weird guy, but he has mental trauma and is pushed around constantly, therefore he shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility for his actions. That is the message I feel Joker undoubtedly puts out. At its core it is nothing more than childish revenge fantasy, but that’s been done better: at least Michael Douglas in Falling Down realised he was the bad guy in the end.
There has been a lot of talk in the lead-up to this film of mass shooters, incels and the like, and while the film doesn’t actually do much in terms of incel thinking – perhaps the only part I had time for is a warped romantic plot-line with Zazie Beetz’ single mother down the hall – it most certainly has a lot to do with mass shooters. That’s what Fleck is at the end of the day, a serial killer who turns to serial killing not just out of self-defence, but most assuredly, by the end, out of a desire for fame and social impact. There is nothing wrong with a film about that subject, and critics who say the film shines a light on the issue of young angry white men prone to violent outbursts are correct.
But the issue, my issue, is that the film showcases the resort to mass violence, whether committed by Fleck or encouraged in others by him, as a positive, as his only option and as something that makes him truly happy. It’s disgusting, the film’s conclusion, that shows a murderous Joker thronged by an adoring crowd, reveling in how he has gotten his own way, glorying in the bloodshed he has caused. The idea of getting help, via therapy, drug treatment and a support network, is laughed away in the film, most specifically in the case of psychiatric medications.
This after an unpalatable and unnecessary third act speech that could have been written by a maladjusted thirteen year old, full of infantile jabs at “society”, and barely concealed Netflix special-esque digs at hypocritical liberals and “woke culture”, something the director is on record as despising (but of course: check out Phillips’ back catalogue for some of his other questionable filmmaking, most notably his choice to include serial killer John Wayne Gacey’s artwork in a documentary production). The same speech contains a belatedly, and frankly pitiful, attempt to eschew the film as having a political point. Too late.
My criticism is, having shone a light on the issue of young angry white men prone to violent outbursts, Phillips’ conclusion shows them that if they act on their violent impulses, to a mass extent, they will be loved, adored and happy in a way they can’t be otherwise. This does not make Joker a censor-worthy film, or illegitimate as art. But it does make it toxic, reprehensible and, if I may be allowed the opportunity to be a little dramatic, potentially quite dangerous.
One does not wish to over-egg the issue. But it is easy to imagine that a section of our society, the angry young white men living in a world no longer willing to completely conform to their desires and wants – the gamergaters, the Blue Lives Matters, the Internet Nice Guys, the MAGAheads and, yes, the incels – rallying behind Joker’s message of self-actualisation and happiness. And in Joker, it is found with your finger behind the trigger and all those that you believe have wronged you being mown down. Joker’s message is that it is all someone else’s fault, be they your parents, social workers, co-workers or peers, and a turn to amoral disorder is the natural next step.
And, from a stricter story perspective, the Joker character gains nothing from an elongated backstory. Kill a frog to see what the insides are like and you’ll understand the frog better, but you still end up with a dead frog. Heath Ledger’s portrayal had gravitas aided by mystery: the character needed no backstory because he was interesting all on his own, turning the very details of how he came to be into a running joke where the story keeps changing. It’s hard to imagine any other version of the Joker where his parentage is an important plot point worth discussing, or a version where he gives the slightest care for what other people find funny or not.
Phillips claims to have been influenced by The Killing Joke, but that doesn’t come through for me, that origin story had a bit more intelligence to it, and tied into the central theme of normality being easily warped by “one bad day”. No, even leaving aside how the finale of Joker is taken right from Frank Miller’s famous tale, there is more of The Dark Knight Returns in Joker than any comic, in its depiction of society as a hopeless gaping maw, and of the Joker as a serial killer people sympathise with for no good reason.
But Joker is not just a failure on these levels. Having garnered so much attention and praise, I was genuinely surprised at how mediocre Phoenix’s performance was. Am I being contrarian, or did my less-than-enamored feelings towards the film in general open my eyes? Phoenix really doesn’t do all that much here other than laugh in a manic high-pitched tone in every scene, smoke in every other scene to the point of distraction and occasionally dance around in an increasingly insane fashion. Replace the laughter with screaming in pain, and this would just be Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, another film where the lead was worse than many were willing to admit.
There are moments when Phoenix, an excellent actor adept at his craft – I was praising him as late as April for his role in The Sisters Brothers – brings the goods. He’s undoubtedly put a lot of prep, (including physically, his Joker being emaciated Christian Bale-style) into the depiction of someone with severe mental health issues, and the best parts of his performance are the moments when he is able to grotesquely contort his body as part of demonstrations of rage or mania. But it always comes back to laughing, smoking and dancing, in a performance that is too repetitive to be considered on the same level as Ledger or even Nicholson. He isn’t helped by a pisspoor script, where his every line is telegraphed, and where the efforts at dark humour are as bad as the jokes Arthur tries to tell in his comedy clubs (and this is easily the least funny Joker on-screen yet: Heath Ledger is watching on and saying “And I thought my jokes were bad”)
The remainder of the cast flounder about with a story and screenplay that maintains Arthur’s position as the centre of the universe, and everyone else as unimportant cardboard cut-outs. They include Frances Conroy as his unravelling mother, Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne and the aforementioned Zazie Beetz. There are very limited roles for women, and limited roles for POC, which should come as no surprise really, if one looks into the director’s stated beliefs and previous films. Robert de Niro’s appearance as a loudmouthed talk-show host injects a bit of verve into the affair, but from the moment he first appears on-screen it is inevitable that he will be just another victim of the Joker’s insanity, the only question is how justified the script will make it.
Visually, Joker is an ugly greyswept affair, with Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher taking so much of their influence from 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1983’s The King Of Comedy that he might owe Martin Scorsese an apology. Maybe de Niro gave his blessing. Either way, their Gotham is wet, dingy, infested with rubbish bags owing to a refuse collectors strike and full of faceless nobodies. It’s not hard to see a bit of Alan Moore’s New York from Watchmen in here too, only without the more-than-adequate social commentary. Phillips, a man with a background almost exclusively in directing comedies, proves himself average at best when it comes to drama, with a multitude of symmetrical framing shots, elongated sequences of Arthur walking around a perpetually miserable-looking Gotham and no section that can be said to really stand-out.
Where Scorsese made New York an entity that appeared to be living and breathing, albeit claustrophobic and intense, Phillips’ Gotham is an infantile copy of the same ideas, betraying little in the way of originality. It throws in lots of little details to evoke 1970’s/1980’s New York, but its all been done, and done better. Musically, Phillips drops in a few appropriate classics and hits, then really waves at the edgelords by inserting “Rock and Roll Part 2”. The creation of a convicted child molester (who may receive royalties for its use), it is heard in a scene where Fleck, fully emancipated from society, dances down the steps from his apartment, in a moment undoubtedly portrayed as triumphant.
I don’t want to overstate the case too much, lest I came across as some kind of rabid hater of the director and Phoenix. I am not, especially not of Phoenix. But this is an awful film. It’s written poorly, its directed poorly and for the most part it is acted poorly. Its depiction of the subject is far from revolutionary. Its key themes and messages are repulsive to anyone who thinks that violent white men need to take responsibility for their own actions, and not be portrayed as heroic, excused or justified. There are those who will identify with Arthur Fleck, and where that leads is anybody’s guess.
Moreover, its pathetically humdrum and tired message that our societal constructs are undeserving of themselves, and that one must break free from such a system, from morals and social contracts, by ignoring them, is simply beyond me at this point. I am, very happily, 15 years or more removed from the time in my life when such Tyler Durden-esque dross was genuinely appealing. Joker seems to suggest we should just burn it all down: it embraces nihilism to the point of stupidity, and for that it deserves genuine scorn. Phillips has every right to make his film and attempt to draw a discussion on it. Just as I have every right to feel I wasted my time and money, and from the way the reviews have started to turn as the film gets a more general release, I know I am far from the only one. Joker is a shallow, empty experience that has airs and graces it comes nowhere close to deserving: it is very much not recommended, and the faster we move on from it the better in my view.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).