Since director Todd Phillips’s Joker premiered at the 76th Venice Film Festival in August 2019, it’s been mired in controversy. Some hailed the film as an absolute masterpiece of filming, evoking elements of director Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Others called it a problematic piece of cinema bound to stoke the fires of boiling hatred in certain corners of the Internet. Joker is both of these things at once. It is technically immaculate, beautifully acted, and a brilliantly designed story. All of these aspects come together to deliver the most true-to-form cinematic representation of Joker yet. Despite all of this, the message within Joker is undeniably muddy, ensuring that the same people who don’t understand the satire of Fight Club will miss the subtleties of Joker, viewing it as a call to action instead.
In the script by Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver (8 Mile), a never-been-seen look into the origins of DC Comics’s most nefarious villain is offered. Before he was the Clown Prince of Crime, he was mild-mannered Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown-for-hire with dreams of being a comedian. However, his neurological condition causing fits of laughter and his struggles with mental illness make it difficult for Arthur to connect with the world. In an attempt to make concrete what’s only ever been hinted at through the Joker’s storied history, Phillips and Silver place Arthur as the unintended spark of revolution in a Gotham City on the verge of explosion.
Considering Phillips’s history as a comedic director (Old School, The Hangover trilogy) as well as his recent comments about the state of comedy, it would be fair to have a certain skepticism when approaching Joker. The character is known for his violent, yet comedic aspects, so asking what a director like Phillips has to offer is completely natural. The answer is utterly surprising, as Joker is just as enthralling as the initial chatter suggests. From the opening shot of the film, Phoenix is mesmerizing, presenting the complexities of an individual struggling with agency against forces internal and external with apparent ease. Even as Arthur begins to welcome the darker side of his personality, Phoenix’s performance makes Arthur endearing, even empathetic within the context of the film. This is not a character anyone should relate to, yet here we are, growing ever heartbroken for each trial Arthur endures, none of which would be possible without Phoenix’s ability to ground the character. Helping the audience to understand Arthur’s perspective is Phillips’s almost documentary-style filmmaking. Though he’s most well-known for his features, Phillips began as a documentarian with 1993’s Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies and he clearly brings that skill-set of capturing the realism of everyday life to Joker. It presents itself in small ways, like the obvious movement of a camera being physically moved closer to the scene, versus using a more traditional zoom, so that when we watch Arthur in a particularly low moment seek out solitude within his apartment, the audience becomes acutely aware of the director’s physical presence. This sends visual cues that trigger feelings of intimacy that are typically reserved for subjects of documentaries, wherein the audience is given the sensation of being allowed in, to see something no one else does. It’s also present in the way Phillips opts for close-ups and extreme close-ups, ensuring the audience is made intimate with Arthur, unable to look away from the pain and torment the character struggles with daily. This directorial approach also offers occasional opportunities for the audience to feel like they see what Arthur sees, ensuring a greater emotional connection between the character and the audience. In one scene, as Arthur moves around a room, the camera uses a hard focus on his hand and soft focus elsewhere. Phillips wants us to only look where Arthur’s concentrating his attention, so even if all the audience sees is a hand, the audience is signaled to this area’s significance to Arthur. Moments like these are peppered throughout Joker, enabling the audience the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a burgeoning villain.
As entrancing as it is at times, there’s no denying the burgeoning, purposeful uneasiness that emanates from the entire film. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (HBO’s Chernobyl) score utilizes almost off-key violins, making the beautiful sounds of the string instrument immediately off-putting, increasing the already unsettling nature of the narrative to greater heights. Much like the Joker, Philips uses these strings as merely one element of a series designed specifically to put the audience off. There’s a moment in the film which calls into question the validity of everything which follows. In concert with a somewhat vague ending, Phillips and Silver bring forth the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. This is apropos, as any story focusing on the Joker requires a precise amount of uncertainty and a dash of truth. There’s one clue in particular that suggests to this reviewer just how much of the film to trust and how much not, but the fact that there’s any wiggle room at all is indicative of just how much Phillips and Silver understand the mind of the Joker. That said, there’s no denying the danger of the depiction they present.
Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As such, it comes with a certain level of intent in both its inspiration and intended message. The thing is that while the inspiration is clear, the message of Joker is absolutely murky. If we presume that any character at the center of a story is the hero, then the audience should be rooting for Arthur, even as he deals with the tragic hand of fate. Except we should not be rooting for him at all. Not during his first bout of violence and certainly not his last. Joker is neither a hero nor an anti-hero. He is whatever the story needs him to be as an agent of chaos. The fact that Phillips and Silver attempt to give reasoning to his motives makes cinematic sense, and they do this incredibly well, except that, in doing so, they position Arthur as something emblematic. In the film, Gotham is suffering both a heat wave and a growing sense that the rich don’t care for the poor. After a totally unrelated incident, Arthur finds himself the unintended symbol of a burgeoning revolution as the poor desire to fight back. Considering the very real sentiment growing across the United States right now, there’s a very real chance that audience members are going to see Arthur as their signal to take real, violent action. Before you shoot down this particular notion as absurd, take into account that there’s very little funny in Joker. It is a straight drama, a purported examination of one of DC Comics’s greatest villains. Despite knowing that Arthur is a villain, several audience members at the screening laughed during the violence. It’s one thing when a scene is staged to elicit such a response, but that’s the furthest thing from this specific scene’s intent. This is why there’s a fear that the same people who miss the satire within Fight Club will make the same mistake here, seeing Arthur’s cry of frustration, anger, and pain during the climax as a call to action. That they’ll miss Phillips’s intentional direction and narrative cues or Phoenix’s nuanced performance which work together to heavily suggest Joker’s calculated obfuscation of the truth. That they’ll miss the purposeful framing of the entirety of Joker and see only revolution.
In the 1940 debut issue of Batman, Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson introduced the Joker, who has since plagued all of DC Comics for the last 79 years. A criminal mastermind with sadistic tendencies, he’s a character with multiple backstories, all considered equally true and fictitious. Phillips’s and Silver’s psychological thriller is one of the most purposefully uncomfortable cinematic experiences of 2019. Incredibly on-brand for the Joker, their film is absolutely devoid of humor, compassion, and, most importantly, truth. This is the greatest trick Phillips and Silver pull on their audience, which would be highly commendable if it didn’t result in making the already murky message of the film more opaque, all of which is made even more troubling considering how exacting the rest of the film is in execution. Despite finding Joker to be an incredibly unique cinematic experience, the result of craftspeople at the top of their game, the manner in which they successfully capture the nature of the Joker instills far more trepidation than awe.
In theaters October 4th, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.