The Joker is a character that is no stranger to film; if there is Batman, Joker is not far behind. This time Todd Phillips puts the focus of his attention on the origin of The Clown Prince of Crime, taking the audience back to a time before Batman, delivering a painful and dark portrait of humanity, the mentally ill, and suffering with little payoff or reason.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a down-on-his-luck performing clown and wannabe stand-up comedian. Living in a Gotham of the past (70s) tensions are high and the city is on the verge of exploding. It is a city filled with disparity and suffering everywhere you turn. From the opulent buildings to the homeless on every street corner, Phillips wants the audience to know just how brutal Gotham really is. Through his experiences and his bouts of depression, mental illness, and an ailing mother, Arthur is seeing just how cold this massive city can really be.
In all honesty, it is a good setup to introduce the transformation into The Joker. It gives just enough to draw the audience in and make you care while trying to show just how close to the brink he has been pushed. The only issue is, Phillips is not the director to take on this subject. Mental illness acts as a catalyst, with Fleck having a catch-all “sick” condition. The bursts of laughter, delusions, and of course the random violent outbursts, at no time make for a realistic depiction of what it is like to suffer in this way.
Todd Phillips has taken time to watch iconic films of the past, with The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver being clear inspirations for the origin of this iconic comic character. From the time period and setting to the way the world of Gotham acts and deals with social unrest, the spectre of past movies is omnipresent. The only issue being that Todd Phillips is no Scorsese, and he simply has not demonstrated the depth to tackle this subject matter in a way that feels anything more than a cheap copy.
I want to avoid the term “Oscar Bait” since that is easy to throw around a film like this. In reality, Joaquin Phoenix is doing the best he possibly can with the subject matter, script, and direction he has to work with. But nothing that happens in Joker ever feels earned. There are countless times where I was baffled by choices and the twists that were telegraphed from miles away. The Joker did not feel so much like a descent into madness as it did an exercise in futility. We as the audience know the outcome of the Joker, and it is just a matter of time before we see him snap and tear the people in his life down with him. Even the best performance can’t fight against an inherent hatred for the subject matter.
Now, this is not to say this is a poorly made film stylistically, far from it. Joker is potentially one of the best-looking films at TIFF 2019. From the streets of Gotham and its period-styled characters to the bleak slums of the poor, this is a film that wants to paint a picture of just how dismal people’s lives are in Gotham—and it does so with brutal flair.
The bursts of violence are shot with a realism rarely seen in this genre, including beatings, gunshots, and the violent stabbing of someone with scissors. Joker does not shy away from violence, brutality, or blood. Joaquin Phoenix does a brilliant job of capturing the visceral energy that is needed to commit such acts, making the final act of The Joker more akin to a modern-day horror film than a comic book flick. This is a movie that earns its R rating and can be hard to watch, especially if you are going in expecting something similar to what Marvel has thrown up on the screen in recent years.
There has been a lot of concern surrounding a controversial film that focuses on a dangerous loner or the groups around such people. Thankfully, Phillips avoids this outcome for the most part. While there is a romance concept thrown into the film, it never devolves into the dark territory as suggested by trailers, and all in all, adds little to the film. While I still question some of the choices and portrayals, I don’t see this film being a rallying cry for any movements, at least not without elaborating past what is on offer on-screen, and honestly, It lacks the substance to achieve that lofty expectation.
This is ultimately the story of a mentally ill person who slips through the cracks, falling back on his darker impulses. With Joker, Phillips is trying to shine a mirror at the society we live in, showing just how dark the world and unfeeling society really are. Sadly, in the end, it all comes across as shallow, vapid, and devoid of anything resembling true understanding or compassion.
Joker is a brutally angry film and one that revels in the suffering of its characters. With some disturbingly misguided humour and jabs at the mentally ill and poverty, Phillips demonstrates he does not understand, nor cares to understand the world he created—or frankly the one he lives in. It is a nihilistic mess that serves to reveal in the (de)evolution of its protagonist while offering little hope for anyone’s future.
Joker is a movie that wants to be the second coming of the Batman franchise, offering a character that is dark, brooding, and ripe for discovery. Sadly, in the end, Joker is surface-level at best. While Joaquin Phoenix puts in the effort, the result on screen is a movie full of flash and style that ultimately falls flat under any inspection. While it could have been far worse, Joker sits as a relative miss for the new DC Comics universe.