I can’t remember a movie that has been as heavily discussed as Joker prior to its release. The discourse has swirled between five-star raves from the festival circuit and think pieces pondering the possible portrayal of Joker as a folk hero for entitled men, or even an incel ripped from the comments section of a particularly depressing Reddit thread. Todd Phillips’ film, interestingly, is neither of those things. It’s a bold and brutal cinematic white-knuckle ride that is impressively mounted and teems with craft but also refuses to take responsibility for its own politics.
Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck – struggling stand-up comedian and pretty thankless clown, depressingly twirling a sign outside a shop on the verge of going out of business. For this is a Gotham City with very serious problems. Even the wealthiest areas of the city “look like slums”, we are told, “super rats” walk the streets and life is tough out there for anyone who isn’t the super-rich Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) or A-list late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) – the seasoned Jerry Langford to Fleck’s Rupert Pupkin in this King of Comedy homage.
It’s not a stretch to say that Phoenix embodies both Fleck and his violent not-particularly-alter ego. The actor has evidently lost a great deal of weight for the role and his physicality is compelling, with every bone seemingly threatening to pierce his gossamer skin. Scenes in which his character’s awkwardness melts away to allow him a serene, lone dance of calm are intriguing, even if there are a few too many of them, and there’s obvious commitment into his sunken-eyed visage and meticulously researched tic of spontaneous laughter. If there were an Oscar for Most Acting – and one could argue there is – then Phoenix has it in the bag.
Most Direction is also an award Joker quite fancies a go at, with Phillips never having met a stylistic trick he won’t deploy. As a result, Joker is a feast of visual invention, from the strange beauty of Fleck’s fearful early walk through the grim streets of Gotham to the flickering lights of the gruesome, tense scene aboard a subway train that proves to be a potent narrative turning point. Often, the hero-worship of Scorsese is a little too obvious – hello Taxi Driver and the aforementioned King of Comedy – but there’s no doubting the flair on show from Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher. This is a film that wields its elegant craft like a cudgel to batter the audience into submission and it often succeeds, particularly in its darkest moments.
But the problem is that the film lacks courage in its convictions. Phillips’ script, co-written with Scott Silver, certainly pushes Fleck into grim corners, but it utilises narrative trickery to smooth off its edges at every possible opportunity. Joker would like to think it’s delving into the blackest depths of the comic book genre when it actually just hedges its bets in order to squirm away from potential criticism. To say further would be to delve into spoilers, but there are some moments here that will merit real debate, despite the film’s love of sitting on the fence.
Joker knows it can’t straight-up glorify its hero, but it doesn’t have the courage to condemn him either and, as a result, there’s a void where the movie’s thematic thrust should be. It makes facile points about rich elites – didn’t we do Occupy Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises almost a decade ago? – but never interrogates Fleck’s entitlement as a mediocre white man. In a world in which women are an endangered species – Zazie Beetz is wasted on a titanic scale – this emerges as a real missed opportunity to examine the inherently fragile masculinity of the character.
There’s plenty about Joker that absolutely works and it’s certainly refreshing to see a superhero movie that, but for one unintentionally hilarious late development, steadfastly sits outside established continuity. Phillips constructs a palpable sense of down-and-dirty dread, helped by Phoenix’s commitment to turning the acting up to Spinal Tap levels, but the movie stops short of ever expressing an opinion. It sits curiously in a sort of uninteresting hinterland with nothing to say, other than a nihilistic declaration that nothing really matters.
In a world that has given us comic book movies with the stunning depth and complexity of Captain America: Civil War and Logan, basic doom-mongering just isn’t enough.
Dir: Todd Phillips
Scr: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Prd: Bradley Cooper, Todd Phillips, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
DOP: Lawrence Sher
Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir
Country: USA, Canada
Run time: 122 mins