- 22 Oct 19
Joker origin story proves high on grit and low on ideas
For all the controversy swirling around Joker, all the political and cultural discourse, all the thinkpieces claiming it’s either the most genius or repugnant film ever released, the most shocking thing may be that it is, simply, fine.
To say that Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerising is to say that Phoenix is in the film, because the actor has never not offered a compelling, complex and committed performance. He plays Arthur Fleck, an isolated professional clown with a medical condition that causes him to erupt in unnerving shrieks of laughter. The victim of bullying and some of Gotham’s typically vicious violence, Phoenix portrays Fleck’s fear and discomfort physically, contorting his gaunt face and emaciated frame into forced smiles and meek retreats.
Arthur is desperate for kindness, which is in short supply in Phillips’ effectively grimy evocation of New York in the early ’80s, bathed in sickly mustards and greys, covered in graffiti and overrun by rats. The city feels weighed by a corruption and cynicism that seems to have pushed out the city’s joy, solidarity and humanity. Phillips’ camera work, the use of empty space, and the supporting performances all create an unsettling sense of isolation and hopelessness.
Gotham’s corruption has real effects on Arthur’s life, as cuts to medical and psychological programmes deprive him of medication and support, while the wealthy continue to thrive. But Arthur also feels entitled – not only to care and attention from women, but fame and glory. He dreams of being a worshipped comedian, despite not being funny. An unclear amalgamation of these injustices, both real and perceived, leads him to gradually transform into the violent, maniacal Joker. In the process, he inspires an uprising, as he looks to finally make the society that alienated him pay attention.
This amalgamation is the problem, both narratively, and yes, politically. Shoving women’s lack of desire for a creepy man in the same “injustice” box as systemic wealth inequality is eyerolling – but it’s also a tired and mundane depiction of the creation of violence. Arthur is denied what he wants, then acts out, feels powerful, and the story escalates. This is an unoriginal portrait of villainy, of masculinity – and even of the Joker. Far from being groundbreaking, it’s a traditional approach.
Other aspects of Phillips’ film also feel derivative. There are endless hat-tips to Scorsese and Lumet, while the director’s narrow vision of Gotham offers no sense of anyone else’s struggles beyond Arthur. The joker masks donned by the city’s growing mob further serve to keep them faceless. Joker is about a social uprising driven by a white, misogynistic, mentally unwell man – but says absolutely nothing about men, misogyny, mental health or society. It’s a writing approach that feels cowardly, lazy and unsatisfying.
As a nightmarish portrait of urban isolation and a gritty comic book origin story, the movie is superbly acted and tensely paced. It also lacks nuance and plays into well-worn tropes. It’s good. It’s not great. But let’s definitely yell about it some more.