Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a wannabe stand-up comedian who pays the bills working as an abused Rent-A-Performer clown. His ironic chalky face paint masks the fact that Arthur suffers from several severe psychological illnesses, the most evident being a chronic medical condition from a childhood trauma that makes him laugh maniacally, uncontrollably, at inappropriate moments. Arthur is an outcast and a loner, with an uncomfortable attachment to his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) and a penchant for violent outbursts. After Arthur defends himself from a violent attack, he sets off a chain reaction through the already volatile city of Gotham, and begins calling himself ‘Joker’.
Joker is directed by Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the film alongside Scott Silver. Joker is a standalone character study/origin story of the DC Batman villain, the Joker, and loosely based on the comic books.
Joker takes place in a timeless Gotham city – crime-ridden and gritty. The film’s backdrop reeks of detachment and imprisonment, looming over Arthur with a sense of foreboding. With a simultaneously stirring and jaunty score, the film’s energy is incredible – cold and empty, yet pulsing with a manic energy and tension.
Arthur is a man unbalanced, on edge, fallen between the cracks of a system that doesn’t care about him. Phoenix is an absolute force. His utter control of his wiry body and his mastery of space is mesmerising. He gives his all to the role, and commands attention in every scene, shifting between physical fluidity and angry rigidity. His voice shifts from coquettish to playful to callous, and he has more than mastered the unsettling Joker laugh.
However, the film’s entanglement with the Batman origin story, while in some ways necessary, seems to devalue Joker’s status as a standalone character study, and makes it feel like a prequel to another Batman versus Joker film.
Before the film was even accessible to much of the world, it was already sparking controversy for its depiction of gun violence at the hands of disenfranchised men. Warner Bros. and the film’s director have done their best to separate themselves from any insinuation that the film incites and glorifies violence, with Warner Bros. even releasing a statement saying Arthur is not intended to be seen as a ‘hero’, as some people fear young radicals will view him. I understand the philosophical tug-of-war critics have engaged with, trying to decide whether films do influence people to violence, or whether people already at risk of violence simply use films as an excuse for their radicalism. I personally believe that films produce cultural narratives about society, thus reinforcing ideas about what stories it is possible to tell. So, with that in mind, let’s explore what story and values this film privileges.
And while film directors don’t intentionally endorse gun violence, what else is there to take away from a film that makes gun violence and anarchy so artfully beautiful? So sentimental? So disturbingly attractive in its embodiment by the sinewy figure of Phoenix? The film is quite an in depth character study, intended to evoke sympathy in the viewer from the very opening scenes, where Arthur pulls at his face in a desperate attempt to make himself smile despite a tear streaking black eye makeup down his cheek. He is then teased and beaten by a group of teenagers and left in an alley. How are we not meant to feel sorry for such a pitiful, downtrodden creature? How does anyone come away unmoved and unimpassioned to revolt against those who have done them wrong?
The problem with the film, that only strikes me upon some amount of reflection and reading of other reviews, is that Arthur’s story is the embodiment of an already disturbing trend of young, angry white men resorting to violence against innocent people as revenge for society ‘doing them wrong’ (if proof is needed, look up the perpetrators of any of the numerous mass shootings in the US of late). Alt-right groups (particularly incels) that subsist in the grimy cesspits of echo-chamber subreddits have already adopted the figure of the Joker as their anti-hero, so a film that glorifies the Joker’s behaviour is going to be seen as problematic.
The film’s culmination is a glorification of a sad, white man taking back ‘what is rightfully his’ – fear and respect – from a society and system that has socially, emotionally and financially cucked him, where he deserves to be Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), but has been forced to play the role of Arthur Fleck. At its core, the film carries an implicit understanding that Arthur doesn’t belong in such as state, and deserves, by some birth right, the power and privilege of men like Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and Thomas Wayne. Yes, Arthur has been dealt a rough hand in life. But then again, so has Sophie (Zazie Beetz), the African American single mother who lives down the hall and who becomes an obsession for Arthur. However, her victimisation is acceptable, expected, stereotypical, whereas his is a large injustice that everyone else must pay for. The inciting riots that raise Arthur up as a King Amongst Clowns proves this point, as the looting crowd is filled with young men destroying things. Where the film could have been an investigation into the failings of the mental health system, or the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the film instead tends towards the anarcho-primitivism of senseless violence and revolution. Unfortunately, rampant and random violence doesn’t change systemic injustice, it just hurts the people lower on the oppression ladder than you. If anything, the film should be a warning against the danger of using a mentally deranged man as the figurehead for a ‘revolution’.
Still, Joker is gripping, heavy, and blunt, with some black comedy stirred through. Joker is part of a new era of cynical cinema. There are no clear-cut good guys or bad guys anymore. Just messy people and messy lives. But hey, that’s life!
I would have given this film a 9/10 based purely on experience, but after considering the film’s social implications, I’m deducting a mark.
I give the film Joker an 8/10.
Joker is in cinemas in Australia from October 3rd.