There has been an absurd amount of discourse around Joker, long before its wide release in theaters this weekend. The film, which won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, has garnered as much attention for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as it has for the supposedly controversial way in which it depicts a violent, troubled psychopath.
Having seen the film now, I can say that Joaquin Phoenix makes Joker disturbing and compelling all on his own; the film surrounding him wants to hammer home just how messed up and socially relevant it is, to the detriment of Phoenix’s singular portrayal of arguably the most iconic villain in comic book history.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian who feels disregarded by the society he inhabits. Working as a clown and living with his single mother (Frances Conroy), Fleck just can’t seem to catch a break, being bullied by the local teenagers and struggling to find success as a stand-up comedian. On top of all that, Fleck also has a neurological condition that causes him to break out in laughter at any moment, which further hinders his social interactions with those unbeknownst to his issues.
As Fleck learns more about his past, he becomes more and more upset at the world he lives in. When he commits a violent act against some wealthy Wayne Industries employees in self-defense, Fleck’s brewing darkness begins to seep through the cracks, and his increasing desire to be noticed by others takes him on an frightening plunge into the depths of madness.
All the hype surrounding Phoenix’s portrayal in Joker is well-deserved, as the actor fully commits himself and brings a new vibe to a character that is so ingrained in pop culture. There is an immediately dangerous energy that Phoenix gives off in his performance, one that only escalates as the film continues. The one aspect of this iteration of the Joker that I actually find rather brilliant is his laughing condition, which Phoenix handles in an incredibly effective way.
He uncomfortably tries to swallow the laughs as they tumble out of him, almost to the point of choking himself. And the more mentally unhinged Fleck becomes, the less he tries to control it.
If it wasn’t obvious with Todd Phillips’ borderline ripoff of Martin Scorsese crime films in his previous effort, War Dogs, the director (who co-wrote Joker with Scott Silver) has a great affinity toward that auteur’s towering work. And Joker has more than a few narrative similarities, homages, and straight-up visual cues from the likes of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.
Phillips even casts Robert De Niro in a crucial role as a talk show host, who Fleck admires until he doesn’t. Let’s just say that the director’s infatuation with his influences aren’t any less subtle here. But, I am genuinely surprised to report that Phillips’ Scorsese-isms were not as distracting as I feared they would be. The arguably more disruptive elements end up being the few ties to the Batman universe, which come off as obligatory rather than organic.
More than anything, Joker wants you to know how self-serious and important it is, and it’s this insistence on being taken seriously that takes away from Phoenix’s extremely convincing and downright menacing portrayal of the titular character. When the film focuses on Fleck’s evolving psychosis, the results are genuinely unsettling.
At one point, Fleck attends a stand-up routine at a comedy club to take notes for his act. The way he struggles to find the humor in the comic’s routine, laughing only when the audience response tells him what is funny, raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
However, when Phillips and Silver delve into thematic ideas of class and the way societal influences affect mental health, they find the most obvious and simplistic ways to convey them. When your messaging is both overt and simplified, it significantly lessens the overall impact of a film that is drenched in self-seriousness, like this one.
And some of these ideas, such as the societal reaction to Fleck’s murder of wealthy, Wall Street types, don’t fully merge with Fleck’s personal journey. And a particularly tendency to over-explain things visually or through exposition (a certain reveal with an underutilized Zazie Beetz‘s Sophie as Arthur’s neighbor, for example) further hinders the overt storytelling.
Just to be clear, my issue with the film’s excessively grim tone does not mean that the film didn’t have any effect on me. There are specific scenes that succeed in their intended effect, like the one at the comedy club I mentioned earlier. And I am impressed by Phillips’ choice to portray a comic book character without a shred of heightened comic book flashiness.
The violence, in particular, is portrayed as shockingly matter-of-fact, which makes it feel frighteningly real. The film’s climax, especially, is filled with tension and had me reeling at the eventual action that takes place.
For every directorial choice that Phillips makes that I like, there’s another that I question. Specifically, a couple of needle drops almost give off the impression that Phillips is trying to show how “cool” his film is, for lack of a better term. And it’s moments like these, where I feel that someone with a more graceful directorial touch might have handled certain aspects of Joker differently.
Phillips directorial approach is finding the lowest, grimmest sounding key on the keyboard, and playing that note repeatedly and loudly. Sometimes all the storytelling elements, performances, and technical elements harmonize with that note, but it certainly can feel more oppressive than engrossing after a while.
And yet, Joker is technically arresting, with Lawrence Sher’s striking cinematography and the production design creating a grungy, grimy Gotham that isn’t dissimilar to a 1980’s New York. It’s a very evocative world that these artists create, and I wish the film would have explored more of it. The way Sher captures the filth of Gotham lends a great deal of tangibility to the proceedings. I do have mixed feelings on Hildur Guonadottir’s score, which is, by turn, operatic and overbearing, which I guess is in line with the overall storytelling here.
Much like its screen-encompassing, bold-faced title card, Joker loudly and proudly announces its grimness and importance at nearly every turn, which sometimes detracts from a performance that more than convincingly conveys Arthur’s mental state. Relentless and monotonous in its bleakness, but undoubtedly effective when it focuses on Arthur’s dissolving psyche, Joker is a decidedly mixed bag of in-your-face storytelling, impressive technical craftsmanship, and one towering lead performance.
Joker is rated R and hits theaters starting tomorrow night. And be sure to enter our Joker contest giveaway!
Images courtesy of Warner Bros.