Todd Phillips’ Joker offers a decent account of how the loner clown came to be the agent of mayhem and Batman’s nemesis. The film begins with the sounds of the radio seeping in over a black screen, describing the filth of Gotham City before Arthur Fleck fills the frame, painting his face white. He’s a clown-for-hire, trying to bring joy into the world but more often than not relegated to demeaning jobs like being a sign-spinner for local collapsing businesses. After he is beaten by street kids and has one such sign stolen and destroyed, the (anti) hero is a broken shell of a man, the water leaking from his gag boutonnière onto the cold pavement below. The screen is stamped with large, gritty type: JOKER.
This is the kind of movie we’re looking at. It’s a villain origin story, nothing more, nothing less. Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver already have the luxury of working with a known comic book property, complete with a chaotic evil protagonist template.
Visually, Joker is a triumph. Production designer Mark Friedberg puts in the work to build a Gotham City that lives up to the declaration of Jack Nicholson’s Joker: “This town needs an enema.” Throuh the lens of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, a washed-out palette of muted gem tones adds to the lifeless grime aesthetic, with color saturation getting warmer and more vibrant as Arthur slips further into the void. It’s a far cry from the clean lines, bold hues and ominous shadowplay of the cinematic Joker predecessor to beat, The Dark Knight Rises. Staging often positions Fleck as fractured or at odds with his own reflection, an especially uncanny bit of photography to a previous Phoenix slow brew: Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.
When Joker’s trailer dropped, concerns rose over the film’s potential appeal to white supremacists, particularly with regards to the POC characters that seemingly antagonize the sad clown. To a degree, Joker is insensitive to race, but not in the manner expected. Arthur encounters plenty of brown-skinned characters throughout the film (a social worker, a medical staffer, hoodlum children) that either don’t give him what he wants or actively hurt him, but these people are almost part of Joker’s color palette; more presence than character. Despite limited screen time, Zazie Beetz turns in a solid performance as Arthur’s neighbor down the hall (and the object of his fantasy), Sophie Dumond. Still, the single mother just trying to get through her day exists only in service of Fleck’s arc. Frances Conroy is especially heartbreaking as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s ailing mother and roommate, and her place is largely on the sidelines as well. Gender-wise, that’s forgivable, considering that Joker chronicles Arthur’s warped journey as changing perceptions of each woman add to his transformation. Race-wise, the film draws a class distinction that declares all creeds and colors to be united under a collective discarded status. As Arthur sits across from his social worker, a black woman (Sharon Washington’s character is simply listed as “social worker”), she is given the task of breaking the news that her department will be shutting down due to budget cuts. When he asks where to go for his myriad of anti-depressants, she sighs and says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “They don’t give a shit about you. They don’t give a shit about me, either.” The city’s only hope is placed in a billionaire out of touch with the real problems plaguing the city, and the animosity towards the one percent can be felt throughout the entire runtime.
What’s notable is that Fleck’s violent wrath is saved overwhelmingly for white men who directly offend him. For all of Phillips’ press tour talk about the woke left that doesn’t allow anything anymore, he’s managed to be sensitive to the idea that an alienated white man slaying people of color is a bad look in 2019. This brings up Joker’s ultraviolence and the media circus surrounding it. In Pauline Kael’s Taxi Driver review (about a film which has drawn numerous comparisons and direct on-screen references), the god-tier critic notes what so many today miss with cinematic ruminations on toxic masculinity:
“I imagine that some people who are angered by the film will say that it advocates violence as a cure for frustration. But to acknowledge that when a psychopath’s blood boils over he may cool down is not the same as justifying the eruption.”
Depiction is not the same as endorsement, and the pearl-clutching insistence that it is puts the overwhelmingly liberal decriers of Joker at a discomforting alignment with the Tipper Gores and the Mary Whitehouses of the censor-happy politicians that they hate so viciously. Any critic with a modicum of film history in their arsenal should be well aware that the same exact hand-wringing has been going on since Bonnie and Clyde were riddled with bullets on the big screen in 1968. Sure, copycat crimes occurred after the release of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. But the British youths that assaulted their fellow citizens were already violent; now they simply had a Droog costume to put on while they beat people up. It’s like the co-killer says in Wes Craven’s Scream: “Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative.” So while there is a place in discourse to dissect the effect art has on culture, this particular noise is no louder than the din of outrage that has occured for decades, through the Death Wish films, to the Video Nasties, to Natural Born Killers to now.
That being said, what Joker says about the phoniness of the upper crust, Joe (1971) says better. What it says about mental illness and the way we fail those who need help, Christine (2016) has in spades. What Phillips says about loneliness, Hal Ashby’s entire filmography says better. Joker is a comic book film putting on a clean collared shirt and dressing up as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver for the high school reunion. The references are egregious, from the finger-gun-to-the-temple gesture to the (unnecessary, in this case) bird’s-eye-view rotation pan. The departure from Scorsese’s film is felt the hardest in Arthur’s ticking time-bomb arc. While he is pushed ever-closer to the brim of tolerance, the violent outburst is abrupt, first in self-defense and then predatory. He shoots some folks that were kicking him, feels empowered, then it’s off to the races. Joker wants to emulate Scorsese’s work (and it proudly does), but Arthur Fleck lacks Travis Bickle’s internal running (simmering) meter, and thus the journey from outcast to agent of destruction doesn’t quite achieve such heights. It does, however, fit well into the villain origin formula, albeit routinely. Phillips and Silver tick the genre boxes without redefining anything, but it’s enough to satisfy as comfort food does.
Outside of the script, Phoenix’s performance as the Joker is a phenomenal one. It’s not just the weight loss: he fully understands the difference between likability and empathy, leaning hard into the ethos of the anti-hero: not only must his surroundings be perceived as worse than he, the outcast has to connect with the audience somehow. Arthur’s tortured existence emphasizes both his loneliness and the fact that he’s just doing his best from day to day. The human connection is simple, but the lead actor sticks the landing. Phoenix puts on a pained funhouse cackle with all of the frustrated fragility that I have when resisting an oncoming but unstoppable anxiety attack. He also shows restraint in the clownery, understanding that he’s at his most intimidating when quietly whispering, “All I have are negative thoughts.” The pendulum swing from subdued to hysterical is applied with purpose from scene to scene, allowing Arthur and Joker more tangibility than the pages he’s written on would allow.
Arthur’s nihilism is harvested in the unforgiving streets of the fictional Gotham City, fermented in the musty office space where he is at the mercy of a callous administrator’s whims and matured on the upending of every comforting truth he held dear. Joker’s spite is a constant, with the only variable being the type of pressure applied to him. The only repreive from such pressure comes in the form of fantasy and violence. Arthur’s social estrangement and economic abandonment is so desperate that he conjures up scenarios in which he is accepted, celebrated and loved for who he is. After unloading a bullet or a slash of the blade, the clown falls into a post-orgasmic state of bliss, involving either a balletic interprative dance or an exhausted comedown in a pool of blood. Throughout, Phoenix’s physicality is jaw-dropping, a gargoyle threatening to burst forth from Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp prototype like an H.R. Giger chestburster.
Concerns about Phillips’ ability to avoid glorifying such a character are slightly validated with the second-most baffling needle drop of 2019 (just behind the “Angel of the Morning” head-scratcher in It Chapter Two), a Jock Jams fist-pumper played as Arthur heads out to execute his twisted plan. But it’s more odd than foreboding; a missed opportunity to further showcase Hildur Guðnadóttir’s memorable score. Missteps such as this pepper the film and prevent it from becoming as powerful as it strives to be.
What Joker does accomplish is a beautifully bleak usage of the anti-hero’s journey as a call to consider our world differently. According to Phillips, the real problem isn’t Joker, it’s the unfeeling society that creates a Joker and then recoils when he responds in kind to the world that spawned him. No solutions, just a call-out of the hypocrisy, which is very Joker-esque in itself. All said, Joker is what so many controversial films turn out to be: it’s fine — neither masterpiece nor trash fire, well-executed in some parts and poorly thought out in others. In the end, it was just a movie.
Anya Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a horror-centric columnist and film critic. Her work can be seen in Fangoria Magazine, Rue Morgue, Dread Central and Birth.Movies.Death as well as her website anyawrites.com.