When it comes to comic book villains, nobody comes close to The Joker. Since his debut in the premiere issue of Batman comics back in 1940, The Clown Prince of Crime has built himself up into becoming Batman’s de-facto archnemesis, and what may be inarguably the single most well-known antagonist in comic history – some may take it one step further at put him in the highest echelon of all pop culture. The Joker has made multiple appearances on the silver screen, perhaps most famously with the Oscar-winning performance from Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, but never in a film driven completely by his lonesome – until now.
One of the beauties of The Joker as a character is the ambiguity that surrounds his origin, giving creators almost free reign to explore the character’s background. In the case of Joker, our Joker-to-beis Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown-for-hire by day who lives with his mother in 1980s Gotham City. Fleck is cursed with pseudobulbar affect (AKA emotional incontinence), a condition that causes him to fall into uncontrollable fits of laughter in times of heavy emotion – certainly not beneficial to his intense social ineptitude. He idolizes Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the Johnny Carson style host of The Murray Franklin Show, and aspires for a career in stand-up comedy that could one day lead to a similar show of his own. But life doesn’t seem to have much room for Fleck: in the words of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, all it takes is “one bad day” to drive someone over the edge, and Fleck has had more than his fair share.
The hints of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy in this narrative are surely intentional (Scorsese was once attached as producer): Joker is rooted in a past era of filmmaking, a decision that comes as both a blessing and a curse. The film is very much a love letter to the New Hollywood films of the 1970s, right down to its usage of the Saul Bass logo used by Warner Bros. during that era. In terms of its mise-en-scène, it’s rather effective in capturing the same spirit: the streets of Gotham, infested with “super rats” and lined with mountains of trash on each curb, have the same griminess seen in Taxi Driver or The French Connection. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is fittingly tight and claustrophobic, and fluid when the camera backs off to follow action, but also provides enough vibrancy that certain shots feel like frames ripped from a graphic novel.
Most impressive is Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score: through her heavy usage of the cello, the rising Icelandic composer channels Fleck’s pure isolation and turmoil so effectively that the music begins to feel completely omnipresent. It’s impressive that director Todd Phillips, whose cinematic background is based in a very particular brand of masculine comedy, has managed to deliver one of the most unrelentingly dark and nihilistic major studio pictures in years: Joker may have a clown at its center, but it’s not a film to make you laugh – at least, not without feeling bad about it.
It’s in the script that Joker’s lofty ambitions start to fall short of the films it wants to imitate. Joker comes as a relief in telling not the story of a rampantly misogynistic loner as feared by many leading up to the film’s release, but as a story of the treatment, or lack thereof, of the mentally ill; the problem lies not in the message itself, or even the pity it (initially) wants us to feel towards Fleck, but more so in the delivery of such a message. Arthur Fleck as a character is highly comparable to the aforementioned Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle – both are sufferers of mental illness who wish to right the wrongs the world has inflicted upon them – but Bickle’s breakdown carries a disturbing and cautionary sense of irony that Fleck’s descent lacks – in fact, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver come dangerously close to outright justifying certain violent deeds. As a whole, Phillips is a director who doesn’t seem to have a strong grasp on subtlety in general: a major revelation is punctuated with flashbacks to hammer home a point that was already made obvious. Likewise, Fleck’s major turning point is accompanied by a needle drop that’s either a joke so dark that its real-world context leans into distastefulness or complete absurdity that threatens to undermine one of the film’s key scenes.
If there’s one area of the film that does benefit from a lack of subtlety, it’s in Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance. Phoenix finds himself in a tough situation, having to differentiate his portrayal of the character from the four live-action theatrical Jokers he subsequently follows, but he makes it look remarkably easy. Having lost so much weight that his rib cage extends noticeably further than his stomach, Phoenix’s haunting performance revolves just as much around his disturbing physicality as it does the eerie lengths he allows his mind to occupy. Laughing and screaming and dancing his heart out for two hours, it’s a theatrical performance that might teeter on complete camp, but one that’s also right in line with everything the character has come to stand for in the almost eighty years of his existence. It comes at the expense of a mostly underexposed supporting cast, but Phoenix gives a genre performance for the ages.
Joker finds a saving grace in the sheer ambition that comes with essentially being this sort of one man show, even in spite of its narrative flaws. With the comic book film genre quite literally reaching a commercial peak earlier this year, a comparatively small film such as this comes as a breath of fresh air. Aside from one subplot involving Thomas Wayne and Fleck’s potential connection to the family, Joker is refreshingly free of seeds planted for sequels, on-the-nose Easter eggs to other in-universe characters, and any hint of a cinematic universe to come. Focusing on character over spectacle, Phillips and Phoenix explore what a comic book movie can truly strive to be and open the doors for further small-scale films of this kind: it doesn’t completely stick the landing, but having walked away with numerous accolades from its Venice Film Festival appearance and a new October opening weekend record at the box office, they may just be having the last laugh.
Joker overcomes narrative missteps and delivers an ambitious, nihilistic exploration of the titular character