To its credit, Todd Phillip's Joker is exactly what it sets out to be: a dark, disturbing portrait of a dejected, lonely man sliding quickly into a moral and psychological abyss. For two hours we watch as Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), whose fragile mental state is physically embodied in his frighteningly skeletal frame and hollow eyes, comes apart and re-emerges as a new variant of the notorious comic book villain the Joker. The film's connection to the DC Universe is tenuous at best, with a few characters providing a thin connective tissue between the film's events and the familiar narrative of how Bruce Wayne, the son of slain billionaire parents, becomes the vigilante superhero known as Batman. The film has been described as a stand-alone project, which is underscored by the fact that it could literally stand on its own without any connection to the Batman universe and be roughly the same film.
Phillips, cinematographer Lawrence Sher (who has shot all of Phillip's films since The Hangover Part II in 2011), and production designer Mark Friedberg (a veteran collaborator of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch) work hard to evoke the grit and grime and despondency of late '70s urban squalor, making it even worse by setting the film during a garbage strike. Not since Maniac (1980) has a film felt quite so grim and grimy, although the obvious model is not William Lustig's gory slasher film, but rather Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), which similarly follows the mental fallout of a damaged man pushed by his environment to a murderous rage that he misunderstands as some kind of divine justice. However, whereas Scorsese's film (scripted by Paul Schrader) has a clear sense of narrative and thematic purpose that links the protagonist's mental collapse into violence with the morally bankrupt culture that is constantly threatening to swallow him (best exemplified in all the manhole covers belching hellish steam to the rumbling strains of the late Bernard Herrmann's penultimate score), Phillip's Joker feels mostly unmoored, running through a stock list of injustices both personal and social that finally shove Fleck over the edge and turn him into a one-man insane clown posse.
It doesn't help that he is already so thoroughly damaged, depicted unflinchingly in the film's opening scene in which he sits before a mirror applying clown makeup (his job is standing on crowded street corners holding a department store's liquidation sale sign) and trying to force his sad-sack face into a smile by jamming his fingers into the corners of his mouth. We learn early on that he suffers from a mental condition that causes him to break into uncontrollable laughter at inopportune times, particularly when he feels stressed or embarrassed. He lives in a shabby apartment with his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), who is clearly suffering from her own mental illness. Together they watch a Johnny Carson-esque late-night television host named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, playing the Jerry Lewis role from Scorsese's The King of Comedy to Fleck's Rupert Pupkin), who Fleck imagines will one day call him down from the audience and give him his dream shot (he longs to be a comedian even though he has no real sense of how humor works).
Fleck finds a possible source of redemption via his relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a pretty single mother who lives down the hall. The idea that Sophie, who is clearly struggling in life but nonetheless appears to be well grounded in reality, would have anything to do with someone like Fleck is one of the film's biggest narrative stretches, and a later revelation about the true nature of their connection is less shocking than it is simply facile. Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) endeavor to muddy the divide between Fleck's inner world and his exterior reality, but they do so inconsistently, as opposed to a film like Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven (1994), which takes us into a schizophrenic mind for 80 minutes and doesn't let go. Kerrigan's film stays true to its convictions, whereas Joker uses troubled subjectivity as a cheat, rather than for insight.
One cannot fault Joaquin Phoenix's central performance; he goes all in in every way imaginable, but doesn't oversell it, which is always a danger. Of course, we've seen Phoenix play disturbed and psychotic so many times now that his turn here feels more like a variation of his previous work, rather than something new and troubling (he is good, but nothing in the film equals that moment in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master when he's hurling himself repeatedly against the wall of a jail cell in perfect contrast to Philip Seymour Hoffman's utterly calm figure in the cell next to him). Phoenix is also working, of course, in hotly contested terrain since Heath Ledger played what many viewed and continue to view as the definitive Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008), a character whose refusal to commit to any particular backstory provides an intriguing contrast to Phoenix's Joker, who is all backstory.
We get a glimpse of the deranged criminal mastermind to come in the film's chaotic final moments, but for the most part it is Fleck suffering, suffering more, and suffering some more, both mentally and physically. He draws violent bullies to him like moths to a flame (perhaps they smell his weakness), and when he finally lashes out at a pair of yuppie jerks on the subway who look like Eric and Donald Trump Jr. clones, we aren't sure if we're supposed to applaud or feel terrified. That is a good thing, since it gives the film a jolt of ambiguity that it desperately needs, albeit one that fades away as the film moves toward its inevitable conclusion. The eventual meeting of Fleck and his television idol Murray Franklin has a strangely forced quality, not so much because it is meant to evoke both Scorsese's superior earlier film, as well as Phoenix's own bizarre yearlong performance art stunt a decade ago whose most famous moment found him in the world's most awkward interview with David Letterman, but because it doesn't offer any possibilities other than the violence that ensues.
Part of Joker's problem is that it is over before it begins because there is no other possible outcome than what we eventually arrive at, and Phillips and Silver don't give us an interesting enough trajectory to make up for that loss (random attempts at physical humor, such as having Fleck walk into a glass door after asserting himself, don't really help). Instead, they try to purposefully confuse things by oscillating between the grim and the ironic; at some points they want us to just see the world as a dour hellhole of isolation devoid of any sense of hope, and at other times (such as when Fleck, well on his way to becoming the Joker, dances in slow motion down a large set of stairs to Gary Glitter's anthemic "Rock and Roll Part 2") they want us to see it all as sick irony or maybe a perverse celebration of the loner's revenge. The fact that Fleck's rebirth as Joker is partially enabled by a mass antifa-like protest inspired by his own retributive violence conflates individual sickness with social and economic unrest in ways that are emotionally engaging, but ultimately empty of real meaning.
One of Joker's other major touchstones is Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's disturbing 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, which similarly traced a possible backstory for the Joker. However, that novel worked not so much because of its depiction of how the Joker became the Joker (which ended up greatly influencing Tim Burton's 1989 Batman), but because it had the audacity to suggest in no certain terms that the Joker and Batman are two sides of the same coin, sharing an insanity that collapses in on itself in the haunting final panels. In Joker, all the insanity is front loaded on Fleck and has nowhere to go but down. One cannot argue that this is not a bold and fundamentally transgressive studio film, and its best joke may very well be that it successfully convinced a mass audience to lock itself down for two hours with a madman. But one cannot help but wish that they had pushed it even further and invested it with real substance, rather than a lot of grim posturing.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Warner Bros.
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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