“Joker” is a batman-free (but not Wayne free) origin story for perhaps the best known and nastiest villain in comic book history. Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, an aspiring comic who suffers from mental illness, including a disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times. The film follows Fleck as he slowly turns to crime and transforms into Joker (the “the” is largely dropped in this version).
In terms of the style and structure of comic book films, this is nothing short of a revelation. It was so refreshing to watch a film that revolved around a comic book character but only had a couple minutes worth of action and violence. Absent are the usual bloated and CGI heavy action sequences that fill (ruin) even the best Marvel and DC films. Every act of onscreen violence resonates and has devastating consequences. This is no cartoon. I have a lot of issues with the film from a thematic standpoint, but it is not dull. Not even for one frame.
Joker is a huge step backwards in terms of its depiction of mental illness. Todd Phillips (who directed) and Scott Silver deliver a script that deals with mental illness in the most shallow manner. At times it’s downright offensive. At its core, “Joker” is a film about a man who uses his mental illness as an excuse to hurt people. His crimes are never the direct result of mental illness, but rather grudges, pride and a thirst for revenge. Arthur is a bad dude, and that evil streak exists separately from any mental illness he suffers.
The film could have been, and was probably intended as, an indictment of how politicians and media use people with mental illness as scapegoats for violence rather than addressing the real causes (guns, poverty). Phillips tries to give us a Joker who is both the victim of this scapegoating and a willing conspirator in its perpetuity, but fails to pull it off in a way that will add anything meaningful to the discussion. The script spends so much time using Fleck’s mental illness to explain away his crimes, it often ends up sending the very message it’s trying to attack.
Then there is also a poorly conceived subplot involving Fleck’s neighbor (Zazie Beetz). It is this relationship that has been accused of being sympathetic to incels, and it kind of is. Arthur becomes infatuated with this neighbor and begins stalking her, which results in them dating. If that sounds far fetched, that’s because we learn later in the film that Arthur believed this relationship was happening, but it wasn’t. Of course, his response is to lash out in violence at his neighbor, yet we never find out what happened to her. Through editing and the sound effects of sirens approaching the window outside Fleck’s apartment, we assume he killed her, but we never really understand why. The script is cowardly and unsure of itself. Phillips and Silver seem to know this whole subplot is creepy (and in the larger scope of the plot, unnecessary), but rather than use it to call out incels, they pull back at the last minute. The editing makes this all about Arthur’s pain, Arthur’s fear and Arthur’s point of view.
The script doesn’t do much better in terms of Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy). It also uses the incel worldview to make us feel sorry for Arthur. He is constantly surrounded by comics who tell sexist jokes and treat women like crap. The impression we’re supposed to get from this is that, comparatively, Arthur is a nice guy. Why can’t a nice guy get women? It’s misguided. lazy and offensive.
As for Phoenix’s performance, it’s good, up to a point. I found it really interesting during the first half of the film. It gets repetitive during the second half, and I felt like Phoenix really only broke out of the repetition in one or two scenes after the midpoint. There were also parts where it seemed Phoenix was really just playing himself, and it was hard not to think of his antics a decade ago on The Late Show with David Letterman during a climactic moment featuring a Gotham City late night host played by Robert De Niro.
It’s impossible overstate how bad the music is. When I say music, I mean the score and the popular music. The score just sounds like a rip-off of what Hans Zimmer did for Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. That sound was right for Ledger’s character. It’s distracting and annoying in this setting. Much has already been said about the inclusion of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2,” which would be an odd choice even if Glitter wasn’t a sex offender. It’s not the only bad choice. Though an earlier use of “Send in the Clowns” during a key scene worked, I groaned when it was used again during the end credits.
“Joker” is not the worst film I’ve seen this year, and it’s far from the best. It’s certainly the one I’m most conflicted about. To say I didn’t enjoy many elements of this viewing experience would be a complete lie. It’s a film I will likely revisit, re-examine and wrestle with for a long time. Some might say that makes it great art. I’d argue it’s just exquisitely rendered vandalism.