From the man that brought you frat boy-esque romps layered with overtly-masculine overtones such as The Hangover trilogy, comes perhaps the most surprising film of this year: Joker. Behind it, the studio famous for its muddy track-record in bringing the pages of its own comics to life. Not the ideal pairing, you would assume.
In this case, you would be wrong. Todd Phillips’ adventure into the dark and twisted world of DC’s universe is essentially an art-house film in disguise. Akin to the costumed superheroes and villains of its genre, Joker is a beautifully created, thought-provoking piece of media hidden behind the false mask of ‘yet another comic-book movie’. Throughout its entire runtime, the film is a controversial and compelling take on the classic loner-goes-psycho story, following the descent into madness of its protagonist: Arthur Fleck.
I could bother you with the details of Fleck’s mundane life, but like so very few other films, the backstory of our narrator just isn’t important. Perhaps what is most interesting about Phillip’s attempt to give a concrete origin story to the most famous clown in pop culture, is that the film retains its brilliance despite it’s arguably bland and unoriginal narrative. Remove all positives aspects that make it as good as it is, and you aren’t left with much. Essentially, it boils down to: man treated badly by society, man snaps, man takes revenge through horrific acts of violence. We’ve seen this a million times before, all it takes is a second viewing of Taxi Driver (one of Phillips’ main inspirations), to understand that we aren’t seeing anything new. However, it just doesn’t matter in this particular case.
Sporting a mesmerizing performance by Joaquin Phoenix, the audience is left to delve and root around in the mind of someone who has been to the edge, and in this case, laughed. Phoenix plays with us, forcing us to watch his horrific acts of violence dramatically played out in intense moments filled with gore, fear, and in one case, a latch just out of reach. Contrasting this, we see Arthur at his most vulnerable – dancing sadistically in front of a subway mirror, or bent over himself with every sharp angle of his bones defined by paper-thin skin. Like another villain of the Caped Crusader’s famed rogue gallery, Arthur is split down the middle, a man of two halves. On one side, the psychopath responsible for unimaginable pain, on the other, a man cast aside by the brutality of the modern world.
Despite all of this, neither Phoenix nor Phillips invites empathy for Arthur. This is where the danger lies – ironically, in the most sincere of a human’s emotional range. People see the Joker, and therefore what he represents, as a reflection of their own lives. They see someone ostracised, are able to relate to this, and began to feel they understand him. People adapt his mannerisms, his look (take every other Halloween costume this year) and set about idealising him. The Joker is the embodiment of everything wrong with humanity, our natural disposition to violence and understanding being in a vulnerable position but choosing to endorse the negative aspects of it – any number of things. The Joker may be free from society’s rules, but he is also free from any and all human connection.
The danger lies in his idealisation, something I doubt Todd Phillips can grasp given his track record to endorse those who should not be endorsed (see his documentary on GG Allin). Handling a character like the Joker is precious, certainly not something to take lightly. Whilst he never asks us to sympathise, Phillips never dissuades either.
Phillips has created a story centered around yet another male figure. The women of the film are suppressed and silent, forced into the box Arthur creates for them where they live to serve his desires and intents. As we are never asked to criticise Arthur, we essentially never criticise this misogyny either, resulting in a closed perspective of Gotham told only by men.
Through ignoring the female experience, Phillips has arguably created fuel for the continued oppression of the female gender, in a subtle and disturbing way. People look up to the Joker, therefore they look up to and adopt his commodification of women all around the globe. In this respect, this is where the film is the most disappointing. Phillips may not be one to refute masculine traits, but a film with this much influence needs to consider its impacts far more carefully.
What the film does brilliantly is build the tension between rich and poor. Blending the cinematography of Lawrence Sher and music by Hildur Guðnadóttir, the audience is presented with a bleak Gotham. Shots of garbage bags piled high, accompanied by cars screeching through roads caked in dirt, all set to an eery score, remind us of the depressing reality those in poverty face. The ultimate uprising of the working class in the form of the clown protests reminds us of the power of the mob. Phillips wants us to question the power the rich are afforded and asks us to challenge it, after all, why should we sit by and allow wealth to determine our lives?
Aside from this is the poor depiction of mental health. The film seems to track the narrative that mental illness=psychopath destined to kill. As a Hollywood trope that desperately needs to be abolished, it’s a shame to see a film that could challenge this ignore it so spectacularly. As I mentioned, the character of the Joker has a great deal of influence, so using him to ask the audience to consider more challenging themes is something I’d like to see happen.
Overall, despite its issues, Joker is an exciting look at what main-stream media can have to offer. From posing questions about how media influences real-world violence (Quentin Tarantino has some interesting views on this), to challenging the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor, the film brings much to the table. I’d recommend it to anyone looking to challenge what kind of cinema they enjoy but go in with the thought that Arthur’s actions are that of a weak, deranged man. The idealisation of him is dangerous, look to condemn him and instead ask yourself where you see these issues in society. Look in yourself as well, we are given characters like this so we can relate to them and their evil actions in some way, but then to learn. Take the film as an experience to explore your own flaws, and through that, become better than the man many of us revere.
Enjoyment = 4/5 – exciting and disturbing, this is comic-book films done well.
How much does it teach me? = 2/5 – the narrative is relatively blinkered, but asks interesting questions.
In retrospect = 4/5 – destined for cult status
Overall: 4/5 stars
Any questions or recommendations for films to review, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Next time, I’ll be reviewing the Irishman, so feel free to send your mini-reviews that I might feature!