Review: Joker

History has long rewarded the ambitious film-maker – think of Charlie Chaplin, who utilised slapstick to preach his socialist ideals; or Martin Scorsese, who went from subverting the crime genre to defining it. Aspiring to join these ranks is director Todd Phillips, whose bold telling of a downtrodden man’s transition to criminality has its qualities, yet lacks a degree of finesse.

Hard times have befallen Gotham City, with the crime rate soaring amid a period of economic austerity. One local resident, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is experiencing a greater hardship than most during this period – as somebody living with a mental illness, he constantly feels ostracised by others, and doesn’t get the support he needs from Gotham’s public health system. Adding to his woes, Fleck earns a meagre income as a Clown-for-Hire that is barely enough to provide for him, or his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) for whom he cares.

Wanting to alleviate his suffering, Fleck is pursuing his dream to become a comedian, not unlike his idol Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a Gotham-based television personality, host of a late-night chat show, and one of the few people to have ever shown him kindness. Fleck’s anxieties threaten to derail his career before it can even begin, but with the support of his neighbour and crush Sophie (Zazie Beetz), he begins to craft a stand-up routine that he hopes will win over his naysayers.

Todd Phillips’ Joker is ostensibly framed as an origin story for the DC Comics villain of the same name, whose beginnings have been told on the screen twice previously. The first instance was in Tim Burton’s Batman, which memorably cast Jack Nicholson as a mobster-turned-Clown Prince of Crime; the second was The Killing Joke, a feature-length animation adapted from the celebrated graphic novel of the same name. It’s the latter story that better informs Phillips’ feature, emulating its mature themes and utilising the villain’s backstory as a stand-up comic for inspiration.

As with most DC films of late, Joker is less concerned about adhering to a shared universe than it is with crafting a bespoke world for its characters to inhabit, one which is so closely aligned to our own that the picture rivals Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy for realism. Set in the 1980s, the world in question is visually downbeat, with the streetscapes of Gotham being grimy, the buildings drab, and the fashions lacking imagination – Joker’s wardrobe aside, of course. It’s a look that deviates greatly from the likes of Shazam! and Aquaman, two prior films renowned for bringing colour and cheer back to DC’s Extended Cinematic Universe.

TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) in Joker

The dour visuals are a manifestation of the picture’s gritty tone, again being unlike any DC film released previously. The violence displayed is rather confronting, with brutal force being used against characters and large quantities of blood seen spurting from victims; there’s a liberal amount of swearing in the dialogue, including the occasional f-bomb; and the screenplay isn’t afraid to examine heavy topics such as abuse and neglect. It’s an approach that allows for little in the way of heroics, not least because Joker’s archnemesis, Batman, makes only the most fleeting of appearances.

When handling dark material of this sort, it’s important to ease the viewer’s discomfort by providing instances of light-heartedness every so often; given his background in comedy, it would be logical to assume that Phillips is capable of providing such balance, but Joker proves otherwise. There are very few moments of levity in the film, and when they do appear, it’s often at the most inopportune moments, serving only to leave the viewer perplexed. What’s more, the comic relief offered isn’t particularly funny, and would be fortunate to earn anything greater than a snicker.

Phillips’ poor utilisation of humour speaks to a larger concern with Joker – namely, that his production is filled with questionable decisions. There is no better scene that exemplifies this problem than the now-famous dancing sequence, which has Arthur in his clown makeup and red suit grooving flamboyantly on a flight of stairs to the tune of Gary Glitter’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 2”. The use of Glitter’s music is in rather poor taste, given his widely-publicised conviction for multiple sex offences; but nevertheless, it works in the context of the film, because it’s played immediately after Fleck embraces his status and identity as a criminal.

Staying on the subject of music, Joker also makes peculiar use of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, whose orchestral soundtrack can be heard throughout the film. The Icelander’s string-led compositions are both stirring and ethereal, rightfully earning her an Academy Award; yet her work is rarely paired appropriately with on-screen proceedings, sounding as though it belongs in a different feature altogether. It’s an issue echoed in the cinematography of Lawrence Sher, whose images are too crisp and clear for the production’s grungy aesthetics.

By far the biggest problem of Joker though, is the way it demonises people with a mental illness. As Fleck completes his descent into madness, the film utilises his trauma and poor mental state to justify his criminal actions, suggesting that with proper treatment, such behaviour would never have occurred. It’s an argument that lacks merit, particularly because nothing is said about the countless other citizens of Gotham who rely on public healthcare, nor the others who live in poverty – surely if that were the case, every underprivileged member of society would become a psychopath.

Sophie (Zazie Beetz) in Joker

It’s here where Joker’s source material proves a stronger narrative than the blockbuster it loosely inspires. See, in The Killing Joke, it details how Batman’s foe was driven insane because of “one bad day”, leading Joker to believe that anybody can become psychotic if faced with similar circumstances. His story is juxtaposed by Commissioner Gordon who, even after facing a brutal torture at Joker’s hands, remains sane and level-headed until the end – as Batman muses to Joker during their climactic fight sequence, “Ordinary people don’t crack. Maybe it’s just you.”

That moral was obviously too straightforward for Phillips, who is more concerned with layering his film in ambiguity. Throughout Joker, there is never any clarity as to what message is being conveyed, to the point where people have appropriated the film to support their own ideals. The opinion most often expressed by commentators is that Joker has an anti-Capitalist agenda, intent on inspiring compassion for those less fortunate; it’s a rather laughable suggestion in the eyes of this reviewer, who believes that the film will only justify the prejudices of the rich – they’ll watch Joker’s acts of violence and say, “See?! Poor people really are evil!”

If there is a saving grace of Joker, it’s the performances of all involved. Joaquin Phoenix appears fully committed to the role of Arthur Fleck, his gracious portrayal being raw, pained, and without ridicule – he offers a humanity that is sadly lacking in the script. Of the smaller players, it is Atlanta co-stars Zazie Beetz and Brian Tyree Henry who impress most, the former being a warm, gentle presence as Sophie, and the latter making a short, welcome contribution as a hospital receptionist, the only shame being that their talents weren’t utilised further.

Joker is the Jordan Peterson of blockbusters, being pretentious, vague, and clouded by delusions of grandeur. Commendable acting and a beguiling soundtrack do what they can to save the picture, but overall, the execution is below standard, thanks to inconsistent messaging and some strange directorial choices. Those wanting a nuanced portrait of the criminal mind, or an emphatic rebuke of capitalism, are best served looking elsewhere.

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