Separation of art and artist is a difficult thing, especially when people have such strong hands in creating things. As with most films, this film comes with some baggage. Joker is a film that is facing some controversy due to the fear that it may lead to people taking the message of it on and trying to commit similar crimes, as well as director Todd Phillips making some seriously stupid comments.
Taking that aside what is left is a film that some are hailing as the best film of the year and others the worst. Many are discussing it with breaking comic book movies into the awards season – as if The Dark Knight, Black Panther, Logan and Deadpool hadn’t already done that. But alas, this is where we are at.
Joker, a solo stand-alone film, is set in 80s Gotham where failing stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck begins to lose his grip of rational thought and descend into a madness that brings him to a place where we might come to know him as the villainous Joker that has menaced the comic book world for some eighty years.
From the get go it’s impossible not to view this film in the prism of what’s called the Angry White Man narrative, a narrative not unlike the Magical Negro trope, it’s a trope that depicts the decline of civilised white men as society turns their backs on them and they become vengeful. Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and Falling Down are all examples of this trope and Joker, with riffs on all three is very much in this mould. The problem is that there is a difference between supporting and portraying something.
Is it possible to make a film about someone doing awful things and not support their actions? Yes. American Psycho. Mary Harron managed it, a film that depicts a homophobic racist woman hater without becoming one (it just so happens that Harron is a lesbian. This is the problem Joker has.
Joker’s portrayal of mental illness is an issue, while it begins by wanting to explore what a world that doesn’t understand the mentally ill can do to a person there simply isn’t enough exploration to warrant the constant mention, we meet Arthur, a man stricken with uncontrollable laughter, who shrieks with the giggles when under stress but actually the most pointed moments of exploration are lines like “you ask if I have any negative thoughts, all I have are negative thoughts” or one quickly devastating moment where he writes in his diary “the thing with mental illness is that people want you to act as if you don’t have one”.
But actually, the better portrayal of illness and decline is Frances Conroy’s quietly moving turn as Fleck’s mother Penny, fruitlessly clinging to the belief that billionaire mayor-runner Thomas Wayne will help them because “he cares”. It’s not impossible to see the political parallels they’re running with this film, and in these moments the wider reaches are almost noble. The film takes place in 1981 during a garbage man strike that has rendered the city of Gotham a stinking rat filled hole.
The rise of the clowns after a rather shocking bout of violence is interesting, it calls to mind how something small can take rise. Sadly, what director Todd Phillips is going for is a sort of Black Lives Matter parallel with the poor and oppressed, and instead feels more like those people that stand outside Westminster wearing V for Vendetta masks thinking they’re edgy.
It seems at this point pointless to say that Joaquin Phoenix is incredible, though he is. It’s not just how he smiles in an almost toothless, non-threatening way for most of the film, it’s his entire body. His emaciated frame is looked at by Phillips’ camera near constantly, he spends an odd amount of time shirtless showing his gaunt frame, bones jutting out at odd angles. It’s mesmerising, and his voice is so soft but also so threatening. The way in which his body language changes over the course of the film as well, the way he carries himself at the beginning vs the end is a masterclass in walking as a character.
The supporting cast are all very good as well, Conroy has always been a reliable actress, and he desperate ailing mother character is actually the better depiction of mental illness though it’s more a plot point than anything else. While Zazie Beetz is somewhat underused as a character who again becomes little more than a plot point, her portrayal brings a moment of warmth to the entire film.
The big coup is obviously Robert De Niro as talk show host Murray Franklin. There’s no denying the casting is pointed, like Robert Redford playing a besuited government type in Captain America: The Winter Soldier or John Hurt playing a fascist leader in V for Vendetta, De Niro here is riffing on his work in The King of comedy and Taxi Driver and the film is not shying away from it either.
Todd Phillips, who until now has pretty much made his name is not-very-funny comedies – Old School, The Hangover trilogy and Due Date, and the somewhat entertaining War Dogs, here has an edge to him that shows he does know his cinema. Taking his ridiculous comments that you can’t make comedy in this “woke” world – this film features a couple of stand up routines that are very funny and aren’t offensive – so?
He does understanding building tension and shows a deft hand at the kind of character study you would want. Both him, and co-writer Scott Silver aren’t always as pointed as they think they are, and one too many times Arthur states things over and over without it being a character trait.
That said, the cinematography by Lawrence Sher is incredible, getting the grit and drama of old movies perfect, and filling everywhere with the sort of menace you really want. Several shots are so perfectly done that you want to frame them as examples of artistry. Similarly the score by Holdur Guonadottir is at times intense, moving and underlines what is happening brilliantly.
It’s a shame that by the end the film isn’t able to end properly and keeps going after it’s natural end point, and that instead of merely portraying a man going man it ends up indulging him and being on his side more than once which only serves to underline the concerns people have about Incel culture and potential shootings.
That said, and with reservations, the film is a triumph, an engrossing uncomfortable portrayal of a man losing his grip on the world as it turns it’s back on him. For that the film is a film of the year, but it isn’t perfect, and the controversy is both deserved and will continue for some time. But the film will linger in your memory long after the music dies down.