As films like Parasite and Knives Out put on a clinic eviscerating the upper crust’s ambivalence toward those under its heel, Joker looks like an insecure delinquent screaming from the back of the class that he’s just as smart as the teacher’s pets. Joker is troll level incitement - low information, low insight, high self-confidence. At anyone who dares question its objective greatness, it screeches, “DEBATE ME!” It’s as if it were written by an artificial intelligence programmed by GamerGaters, Kelly Marie Tran harassers, and Snyder Cut cultists who hoped to see their self-righteous struggle immortalized by an iconic anti-hero. Whatever craft is on display here distracts from the filmmaker’s obtuse, unsophisticated theory of how a doormat like Arthur Fleck becomes a Joker.
I watched the film hours after it received more Academy Awards nominations than any other film this year. I can accept many of them; there is artistry here. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography reinforces Arthur’s isolation with razor-thin depth-of-field and exquisite framing. An early scene with his social worker frames her in such a way that she feels like she’s in retreat, even as she’s tasked with helping Arthur. Hildur Guonadottir’s score blankets Arthur in doom, a stand-out in a genre whose music has gotten more forgettable as it has taken over popular culture.
Then there’s Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. It’s a complex and layered exhibition of Phoenix’s greatest gifts. There’s no actor alive more attuned to hiding a damaged soul behind various masks - from angry bravado to demonstrative optimism. In nearly every scene of Joker, Phoenix is spinning plates. The film gives Arthur a medical condition which causes him to laugh uncontrollably in times of great stress. That laugh, shrieking and joyless, makes laugh-so-you-don’t-cry literal, a primal scream choked by a false display of joy. It’s always mesmerizing and occasionally heartbreaking. If only the rest of the film had matched the complexity of Phoenix’s performance.
Job has nothing on Arthur Fleck. “I just want to make people smile,” he says, espousing his mother’s “put on a happy face” mantra even as he hasn’t quite internalized its message. Despite his intrinsic, off-putting oddness, Arthur works as a clown-for-hire. While spinning a sign outside a going-out-of-business sale, his sign is stolen by a group of young men. He gives chase and gets the piss stomped out of him for the effort. The sign the thieves split across his face? Yeah, it’s going to come out of his paycheck. Arthur suffers such indignities to support himself and his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), a shut-in who laments the state of the world as she writes personal letters to billionaire Thomas Wayne - her former employer and elected savior. Meanwhile, Arthur has eyes for stand-up comedy and fantasizes about earning the respect and admiration of his comedy hero, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), the host of Gotham’s version of The Tonight Show.
The film quickly establishes Arthur as a perpetual victim, somebody who, in a typical film, we’d embrace as he took control of his life. His social worker is distant and unhelpful. His employer is an asshole. His own brain saddles him with a discomfiting tic that keeps people at a distance. Joker staunchly adheres to the roadmap of many underdog tales; the film invites, insists really, that we root for Arthur. Yet, the only way Arthur knows to prevent his own victimization is to victimize others, and he’s not the type who sees the virtue of a proportional response.
It doesn’t seem like the filmmakers considered taking a position on this emerging killer’s elevation to headliner. When it appears they have something to say on the matter, they muddle it with inconsistent use of fantasy sequences and hallucinations. Are we seeing the events from Arthur’s perspective? Is his worldview perverting what we observe? My most cynical interpretation -- the imprecision doesn’t represent Arthur’s state of mind. Rather, it reflects a cowardly filmmaker dancing around the implications of humanizing a character we have no business sympathizing with. After everything we see, if we feel bad for this sick psycho - well, that’s on us. It’s not on the film.
Joker tells a tragically familiar story for Americans who have frequently seen public spaces become hunting grounds for the disgruntled. Like many modern (white) mass murderers, Arthur resorts to violence as a balm for his perceived persecution. Just over ten years ago, one of his kind murdered twelve people and injured 58 others in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. The movie's predecessor, The Dark Knight, also revolved around Joker, but that film recognized that the character’s relevance was in his embrace of anarchy and chaos, not in his wounded humanity. Phillips’ Joker inspires chaos in the film, but his motivations are quintessential angry white man.
The film’s lack of an intelligible point-of-view makes the whole enterprise more grotesque. Joker introduces certain concepts and side plots that could have clarified the filmmaker’s motives for commercializing a poisonous ideology scraped from every incel’s internet manifesto. Instead, these half-hearted digressions only serve to confuse the already fuzzy intentions of the filmmakers. There’s the unlikely cult that rises out of Arthur’s murder of three men who assault him, the confounding family history of Arthur and his mother, and the unfeeling bureaucracy serving as the custodians of Arthur’s sanity. They supply him with seven medications for an unspecified mental illness. The film is the first to use a reductive portrayal of “mental illness” as a shorthand for volatile and unstable, but Joker shows incredible hubris spotlighting problems with the “system“ at the same time they’re relying on “crazy” to do much of the heavy lifting for their character’s motivations. The way this story is told Arthur’s medications are an impediment to his authentic self, and he thrives, by Joker standards when he can no longer take them.
Late in the film, after Arthur fully adopts the Joker persona, the filmmakers highlight his blossoming freedom by having him decisively disavowing the grassroots movement that rallied a clown-faced mob into the streets of Gotham. He’s not political, he says. He just wants to make people laugh. For the first time in the film, it felt like Joker’s creators were actually saying something. The film isn’t political. It’s just entertainment. The line drips with cynicism. Co-writer/director Todd Phillips was either incapable of or couldn’t be bothered to treat the complicated issues he raises with proper depth and respect; with this line he let himself off the hook. The film’s unwillingness to take a stand on the Joker’s rise / Arthur’s fall makes the whole venture feel disingenuous.
In the film, the Joker inspires a social uprising by killing a trio of Wall Street bros who assault him on the subway. Nothing is ever mentioned about his motives or his philosophies when it’s reported on the evening news. There’s no manifesto calling the disenfranchised to action. Arthur is completely detached from the growing instability; it’s just another act the film grants Arthur absolution for.
If you just want to make a grimdark origin story for an iconic supervillain, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that idea. I can appreciate a film giving in to the darkest impulses of human nature - provided it has something to say on the matter. But Joker’s detachment is chickenshit. Joker puts so much of its narrative momentum behind establishing Arthur Fleck as the victim of forces beyond his control that it’s hard to read the film as anything other than a justification for his homicidal heel turn.
Where do the filmmakers expect their hard-earned sympathy for Arthur to stop? Where is the line? Should we be ok with some of the murders but not others? Are they all bad? Arthur’s story parallels too many real world tragedies for the filmmakers to so brazenly sidestep questions like this. Phillips has made a vile film about a vile man in such a way that he can skirt accountability for those who would take the wrong messages away from it. Joker is grotesque and made even more so by the filmmaker’s transparent attempt to maintain plausible deniability when faced with the inevitable questions about glorification arise. “They’ll say, “Of course we’re not justifying Joker’s actions. Only a really fucked up person would take that away from our film.” That’s exactly my point.