Joker is Half-Formed, Phoenix is on Fire

Enough has been said about the discourse surrounding Joker, both online and in the real world following a slew of half-formed threats among U.S. cinemas. So let’s stick to what the movie is, not what it might be or what it might mean when you hear a single word or phrase in the movie that makes you want to read between many lines and find an incel’s message or more. Joaquin Phoenix and a powerful final stretch imbue this film with the resonance of something approaching greatness, if mostly only imitating it. Fake it till you make it, right? For now, anti-woke director Todd Phillips will have to settle for a good movie, a great performance, and a script that’s more interested in trolling people than plumbing the depths or nuances of the human mind.

If you’ve seen the trailers you know the gist of it, and Joaquin is on top of it as Arthur Fleck. On the page, his Joker is an amalgam of every sad-sack on the warpath trope, from bullying to an overbearing mother and more. On the screen, Phoenix brings him to frightening, penetrating life. Looking sinewy and skinny-unhealthy, Fleck is a man encumbered with childhood trauma and a condition of occasional, uncontrollable laughter. The two are intertwined, and he has learned to laugh through pain and otherwise pretend to know what’s funny to those around him. He’s a man so disturbed he generally doesn’t know what’s funny to an ordinary human being, when to laugh and not to laugh. Much like he did in films such as The Master and last year’s best film You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin has fashioned his body into an organ for the character’s many quirks and psychoses. His Arthur is a graceful yet reptilian dancer when the moment strikes him, as if he learned from television that dancing is what people do when they’re happy. Arthur doesn’t know what it means to be happy because he’s never felt happiness in any given moment of his life. “All I have are negative thoughts,” he tells an ill-suited therapist, a woman just trying to get by herself and soon yanked off the payroll by city cuts to social services.

There’s a lot of talk in Joker about a “kill the rich” movement across Gotham, an uprising of the poor working class versus the rich and powerful banks and launderers who have taken the city for everything. Arthur’s actions early in the film provide a spark for such a revolution, even if Fleck himself isn’t committed. Joker can’t seem to decide if Joker is an agent of chaos similar to Heath Ledger’s character, ripe for tipping and ripping apart the established order in Gotham, or if he’s just a deranged individual taking advantage of the moment, an almost Trumpian figure. A scene between Arthur and corporate magnate Thomas Wayne (father to you-know-who and a Trumpian figure in his own right) in a bathroom alludes to Arthur’s genuine resentment toward the rich and powerful, hatred born out of a hazy family history that makes for a near brutal twist. Another scene has Arthur readily admitting on live TV that he “doesn’t believe in anything.” Instead of underlining the character’s own confused identity, Joker simply comes across as confused about itself. Regardless, there is something inherently powerful about this film in 2019, particularly in a compelling final stretch of the movie that sees Gotham erupt in riots and Molotov cocktails. Phoenix may be hamstrung by a script that doesn’t fully understand or want to grapple with all of these issues, but the gravity of his illness is etched on his face in every frame of the picture.

Joker manages genuine provocation despite never committing to much in its soup of a character study. It’s not a glory story about incels or even a particularly deep or original take on mental illness. Phillips can’t lay claim to impressionistic filmmaking either. Tossed off like buzz words, frequent allusions to “kill the rich” and the “ignored” of society have nothing to say about income inequality. If anything, the haves versus have-nots is an allusion to Reagan-era decay in the inner cities. Ronald Reagan infamously cut funding for social services in the 1980’s, rendering mental healthcare in America an undeniable joke. A tendency to lay blame on both government and poor parenting in the form Arthur’s troubled mother Penny (Frances Conroy) is portrayed too simplistically to feel at all psychologically savvy. What they get right comes in the aftermath of Joker’s escalating penchant for violence. From there it’s a riveting film that wants us to mull the dangerous, sleeping giant of revolution. There are forgotten men on the warpath with guns and a lack of medication propelling them into a delusional stratosphere. Note the all-white male appearance of the rioters, a group of clearly downtrodden and alienated men finding in Joker a vehicle for their anger. Sound familiar?

Many have argued that Phillips wants us to sympathize with Arthur’s anger, pointing to uneasy humor and revenge fantasies that might incur an audience member to root for his haphazard “quest,” if you can call it that. Director of Photography Lawrence Sher and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir paint a portrait that is neither sympathetic nor completely devoid of empathy, which is key to any film revolving around a human being committing heinous acts. With help from production designer Mark Friedberg, Sher’s lensing creates a textured world of sewer green walls and grime. Arthur’s cynical reality, though fraught with the whims of an unreliable narrator, is painted as such. We think of Joker not so much as a victim of his environment but as part and parcel to it, and Hildur’s music only adds to it. Reminiscent of the nervy strings heard on Game of Thrones, the score goes a long way towards ensuring the audience that Arthur is no hero or even anti-hero. We’re witnessing a descent into madness, and not necessarily the kind that might warrant an insanity plea. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he chooses to kill when the chips are down. I don’t believe in spoon-feeding an audience, so in the wake of so many fears surrounding the release of Phillips’ picture, it’s good to know Hildur and Sher are doing their part to assuage such concerns. There’s no mistaking the film’s point-of-view when Arthur dances under a flickering light bulb to the sound of a razor’s edge, like what you might imagine hearing right before you step on a rusty nail.

The supporting cast, chock-full of character actors such as Bryan Tyree Henry, Bill Camp, and Shea Wigham, are mostly wasted, given bit roles to fill out the margins of Gotham City. You’ve already heard of DeNiro’s trade here, this time filling the role of a heartless talk show host while Phoenix is the disturbed, failing comedian. Obvious influences like King of Comedy permeate the film, sometimes to an imitating fault. Joaquin is who matters though, delivering a soul of pent-up hostility so visceral and immediate you begin to wonder if there’s a bit of ANTIFA stirred in that character soup. Such impressions are soon cast aside when the shit hits the fan and many people have died. Fortunately, Joker‘s half-formed ideas never blunt the entertaining, edgelord sensibilities of the director, nor the live-wire act the star is known for.

P.S. The last scene is a doozy, utilizing subtlety in the best of ways

Grade: B

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