A “masterpiece” scream giant, in-your-face billboards in Edinburgh, white on black, night illuminated, ranks of 5 stars above newspaper titles. That’s pretty impressive, pretty bold, confident, but is it nothing more than Hollywood hyperbole?
To cut to the summation: the acting and the photography are extremely seductive, Hildur Guðnadóttir music score perfect for the darkness of the drama. But the macho streak grates. What we are given is a post-modern concoction, derivative, loaded with a surface of contemporary politics to give significance to its revenge drama credentials. It relies on cod psychology to get sympathy for the character’s ills real and imagined and glides over a fair number of contrived coincidences. It is misogynist. What leaps at you off the screen is its moral perspective, full-blown, no compromise, far-right fascist ideology. Somebody was cheeky to you? – get a handgun and blow him away.
Shooting the bad guys dead is fine if set in a western. The revenge tragedy is a staple of Hollywood westerns, the cowboy myth an accepted genre, more so when it is driven by Clint Eastwood’s right-wing politics, but Joker is set in a Gotham city that is eerily close to our times in political asides and that’s unsettling when watching a one-man death squad.
This is the fictional backstory to the Joker of Batman comics and film fame. The Joker of Tim Burton’s Batman gave us nothing of his youth. He was just a cheap thief who fell into a vat of chemicals that contorted his face. Joaquin Phoenix plays the young Joker as a disturbed, deluded and depressive on medication. He appears to have been mentally ill from an early age and still lives with his aged mother looking after her needs. “I’ve never been happy in my life”, he repeats over and over to anybody who will listen. My experience of such people is they kill themselves, not others.
Phoenix is skilled at playing the role of the wacky loner who lives in his head. In this rendition he’s polished it to perfection. You can point to any number of roles he’s taken where the character he plays isn’t quite right in the reality department, a person who enjoys inflicting pain on people or is at the end of other people’s aggressive acts. In Joker he is not imperious and incestuous as the fraudulent Roman emperor in Gladiator, (2000) or obsessed with a computer’s artificial intelligence called Samantha in Her, (2013) or last year’s tired hired, cynical killer toting a hammer in You Were Never Really Here.
This Clown Prince of Vengeance is co-writer-director Todd Phillips’ toxic mash-up on the shaping of a psychopath. When you take the plot apart to see what it is trying to say it isn’t much different intellectually from the shallow 1970s Death Wish franchise, a series that got steadily worse as it progressed and its lead Charles Bronson got older and creakier. Death Wish concentrated on snuffing out low life in subway trains and poor end of town gang members, whereas Joker chooses educated guys in suits and working class colleagues, but also enjoys the kill in subway carriages.
Phoenix begins the film as Arthur Fleck, a seemingly sweet soul suffering from Tourettes syndrome that causes him to laugh like a hyena uncontrollably at the worst moments. Arthur lives in a rundown building in an ill-tended neighborhood. He makes a basic living as a street clown waving a shop advertising placard and performing in children’s hospital wards. For the role, Phoenix stopped eating and lost 52-pounds of weight loss, a draconian process that can’t be good for anybody let alone a movie actor. When he strips to dance or wash he’s skeletal. We see a piece of humanity beaten by life and a lack of nourishment, a dutiful son who provides for himself and his addled mother (Frances Conroy). He’d pines to be that familiar, fashionable thing, a stand-up comedian, (in the eighties?) but as Mommy reminds him, “Don’t you have to be funny for that?”
Arthur has three friends, a colleague who is a victim of dwarfism and works in the clown-for-hire company, a sexy single mother (Zazie Beetz) who lives in his apartment block, and his welfare officer. They all turn out to not to like him much and yet for some reason are spared his wrath. His welfare officer has the unpleasant task of telling him his free medication will stop because the nasty system can’t afford the cost.
The strange thing is, the more life dumps on Arthur the taller he stands, the exact opposite of what you and I would do faced by persistent, serious misfortune. I expected him and his mother to be turfed out of their apartment onto the sidewalk for lack of rent but that never happens.
Eventually his luck changes and he’s given a five minute slot in a local comedy club to do his shtick. Predictably, he’s a disaster, but in an unbelievable twist his cringe worthy routine is recorded, picked up and relayed on a national television chat show, the host Murray Franklin played by none other than the grimacing Robert De Niro.
The appearance of De Niro, famous as the psycho in the revenge drama Taxi Driver, is no coincidence. The director wants to remind us of that earlier seminal film and make a comparison with his realisation of the Joker. It sure perplexed this reviewer, diverting my attention from the story to wondering why the screen writers bothered to throw in celebrity and a reference to Taxi Driver – a superior film in all respects – when a tattered movie poster on a wall would have done just as well. The result is a movie of a cynicism so pervasive as to render the viewing emptier than its message.
You never know from one scene to the next if what Arthur experiences in his humdrum existence is real or delusional, the one plot trick that holds the story together, that and Phoenix’s riveting performance. One minute the images are, and then are not, figments of a demagogue’s hate-filled imagination.
Watching the writers giving us reasons to empathise with Arthur, such as getting beaten up by complete strangers, often grates, you realise you are being manipulated.
Joker is a racialised movie awash in bewildering racial iconography. Black folk and white are all unpleasant to know, but while white folks beat you up physically, black folks do it physiologically – they tell you you’re an all-time loser. Numerous plot coincidences are incoherent, beyond the suggestion that Arthur, who is mentally ill, becomes violent after assaulted by the callous behavior of a gang of kids. Nobody has any redeeming features.
In the last reel – to us an old phrase – we are given a number of plot twists, none of which I can relate for fear of spoilers, but each is trite, and the one about Arthur’s birth is banal. Arthur commits murder well before he learns the facts of his childhood.
Once Arthur, dressed as his chosen alter ego the Joker, is given a spot on De Niro’s show – the only moment of genuine tension – his fame spreads instantly and overnight. The city erupts into riots and anarchy as a result, a sudden mass movement of activists who dress like circus clowns and target the rich and the powerful and the corporate.
Joker is hellishly nihilistic. No amount of moody camera work by Lawrence Sher or Phoenix dancing up and down Sacré Cœur style steps to a song sung by Frank Sinatra can hide its fascist attitude to human frailty and the weak.
The studio has done well to sell it to us as a masterpiece; some reviewers have fallen for it. There are European and Japanese films on a similar theme, and there’s Hamlet. Like the pick ‘n mix of post-modern architecture, it’s liable not to stand the test of time. In the end, after two hours, you have watched a clever and contrived story about a comic book clown, a story you hope isn’t emulated by a copybook psycho with a rifle and ammo.
Joker tries to demonstrate what is happening at the bottom of the human pile, with the Republican party at the top, but by writer timidity or studio diktat it delivers purely as gory entertainment. Joker, a clown who makes you laugh and cry? Pagliacci he ain’t.
- Star Rating: Three stars
- Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
- Director: Todd Phillips
- Writer: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
- Composer: Hildur Guðnadóttir
- Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher
- Duration: 2 hours 2 minutes
- Viewing Rating: 15
- RATINGS CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: Excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: Crap; why did they bother?