What a world we live in, where the archenemy of a sociopathic billionaire that dresses up as a bat and assaults criminals is one of the most prestigious roles in cinema. Of the 5 live action Jokers, 4 have won Oscars for Best Acting (the exception being Cesar Romero, understandably so), and Joaquin Phoenix is on his way to being the second to win for their performance of the Clown Prince of Crime. It’s a shame the rest of the movie doesn’t match his powerhouse performance.
Joker follows Arthur Fleck, a literal clown for hire, in 1980s New Yor- I mean, Gotham City. He can’t seem to catch a break; ruffians on the street beat him up; he struggles to feed his ailing, mentally-ill mother, let alone himself; his therapist is being shut down due to budget cuts; and his talk show idol has mocked him on live TV. It’s enough to make any normal person feel a little down in the dumps. In Arthur’s case, it’s enough to make him smear on some make-up and take down the upper class.
Since the initial images of Joaquin’s Joker were released, audiences knew this was going to be a very ‘real’ interpretation of the Joker. More so than Heath Ledger’s already menacing performance. Ledger’s Joker was more an entity, born of chaos and ready to dispense it. Fleck is a hurt individual who the world has kicked to the curb and left to his own devices. It’s a very different approach to the character than Ledger’s but is just as impactful and incredible a performance. Phoenix delivers a gut-punch of a performance. From the opening shot where he sits in a chair and laughs uncontrollably to the point that it’s nothing more than a wheeze and he cries, he conveys pain and contempt behind the eyes. He makes Arthur empathetic, before he makes him terrifying. It is due to Phoenix that the film succeeds. Without him, the film is basic, repetitive and offers a surface level understanding of mental health.
For a film that most outlets were afraid would provoke extreme acts of violence among lonely, rejected, white men, it lacks any punch. The riskiest parts of the film come from Joaquin (and maybe including convicted paedophile Gary Glitter on the soundtrack). The movie doesn’t highlight effectively the experience of living with depression and instead relies upon the main character explaining how “All I have are negative thoughts”. One of the fundamental rules of screenwriting is ‘Show, don’t tell’. Show Arthur displaying negative thoughts, whether it be constant pessimistic thoughts or ideas of extreme acts of violence. He never seems to be depressed, just in a depressing situation.
Also, in criticising cutting funds to medical programs, particularly ones dedicated to mental health, the movie manages to actually criticise mental health programs instead. Arthur only becomes Joker, something he sees as his ‘true self’, only after he stops taking his medication. In other words, the movie is saying that medication is inhibiting those that need it, from reaching their ‘full potential’.
In a movie about a villain, especially an iconic villain, writer and director Todd Phillips has chosen today’s biggest monster, the elite, as the antagonist. Phillips offers a relevant antagonist for Arthur to face, and in turn, inspire a revolution against. It’s one of the few narrative elements of the film that work well, that sadly get shadowed by numerous other themes and messages. Yet, Phillips commentary on the matter is purely surface level and never goes beneath ‘rich people are bad’. The finale hints towards a more challenging approach, with the sequence acting as a cautionary tale of an inevitable revolution towards the oppressive, ruling class. One character even says “You get what you f*@#$ deserve”. It is a tense and visceral experience that makes you wish if only the rest of the film was as bold or thought provoking.
Visually, the conflict is conveyed well with the brief scenes involving Thomas Wayne brightly lit on lavish sets in grandiose theatres and mansions. Meanwhile Arthur’s world is wet, dimly lit, cold, filthy and at times claustrophobic. The production and cinematography beautifully capture the style of the dirty New York streets seen in many of Scorsese’s films, namely Taxi Driver. The film is beautiful to watch, in a melancholic, gothic way; helped by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting, cello driven score that sends shivers down your spine.
Joker, while disturbing, is a blunt, shallow, yet gorgeous film elevated by an uncomfortable, award worthy lead performance.