[TIFF Review] 'Joker' Has a Remarkable Lead Performance Trapped in an Inevitable Plot

At this point, it’s hard to ignore the political discourse surrounding Joker. Each time the film is screened, there’s a new wave of online reactions which reignite the discussion surrounding the film, its messaging and the (speculated upon) real world implications. Upon seeing the film, it’s not difficult to understand both the concerned hand-wringing, as well as calls for even-tempered, less reactionary responses.

At the center of this debate, there is a film to be reviewed. There is also an undeniable seepage into real world affairs, which cannot be discounted. And so: a review in two parts.

The Film

Joker is a standalone crime drama directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover franchise), who also co-wrote the script with Scott Silver. The film is technically set within the DCEU universe and tells an original story of the titular character, while also briefly featuring other canonical characters such as Thomas (Brett Cullen) and Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) Wayne.

The reality is that the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) could just as easily be about any put-upon loser who turns to crime and violence as a coping mechanism in retaliation for his perceived injustices.

You see, Arthur has a terrible life. Not only does he live in a literal garbage universe (Gotham is caught in an ongoing garbage strike), but his existence is a series of unfortunate events. As the film opens, he is beaten and robbed by a group of kids. He suffers from brain damage or neurological problems that cause him to laugh uncontrollably and inappropriately and he has a history of being institutionalized. He is living in poverty with his shut-in mother, Penny (Frances Conroy in a nothing role) and his mandatory meetings with social services and access to drugs is being eliminated due to city cuts.

Things in Gotham are very grim, indeed.

In addition to a burgeoning flirtation with neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), Arthur’s sole highlight is watching his role-model/father figure, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) yuck it up as a Johnny Carson style late night comedy host.

Overall, though, Arthur has an unabashedly terrible life. Phillips and Silver are content to pile up the tragedies one on top of the other, repeatedly undercutting any hope and leaning into the futility of Arthur’s struggle to find something to be happy and smile about.

This frequently makes the events of the film feel inevitable and few – if any – of the developments are surprising. It hardly matters if the audience is aware of the Joker’s origin story or not because there is only one way that this tale can end. This, unfortunately, robs the film of most of its tension and rising action. At two hours run time, there are more than a few points where Joker can feel like a slog.

Aesthetically, the film is awash in a muted color scheme that clearly evokes Arthur’s mental state. Aside from the sterile blues of the hospital and Arkham Asylum, nearly all of the interiors are mustard yellow or spearmint green, which – coupled with fluorescent lighting – casts everything in a dour, sickly vibe. Phillips’ camera, meanwhile, is restless, frequently circling or roaming around Phoenix, or tracking alongside or behind him when he runs.

As for the star of the show, this is undoubtedly Phoenix’s movie and there is no denying that he is remarkable in it. More than anything, it’s a surprisingly physical role: Arthur has a way of moving and dancing that is almost lyrical in its gumby-limbed contortion. While the uncontrolled laughter is a tic that the screenwriters rely on too heavily, Phoenix’s dedication to the bit and his decision to infuse it with a kind of hyena cackle is suitably unnerving. It’s not hard to see why playing the character had a transformative effect on the actor (literally, in the case of his weight loss, which Phillips’ shoots frequently and in an uncomfortably fetishistic fashion).

Were that the character had as much depth as Phoenix had dedication, Joker would be a stronger film. Arthur, ultimately, is a fairly hollow cipher: he’s less of a fully realized character than a stand-in for a variety of modern day social ills (despite the fact that the film is set in the early 80s). Considering that the other characters are even less developed, existing principally to circle Arthur’s orbit, Joker’s success ultimately boils down to its theme, which is where the real world begins to intersect with the fictional text.

The Reality

As previously mentioned, it is almost impossible to discuss the film outside of the context in which it was made and is being released. As I mentioned in my review for Blood Quantum, art is not created in a vacuum and while films can certainly be consumed on their own, the reality is that they reflect or comment on the filmmaker, the audience and/or society at large.

Watching Joker, it is impossible not to see the real world parallels. This is a film about a loner who is medicated and has a history of abuse. He feels invisible; he is mocked and disparaged by those around him. He is vulnerable and preyed upon, and he ultimately resorts to violence without remorse because he feels wronged and owed.

These are the kinds of justifications that have been propagated in manifestos and on the web by alt-right groups and by incels; we see it linked to individuals who commit domestic terrorism because they hate women, or minorities, or immigrants.

Joker can be read as a satire of these kinds of people. It can be read as a commentary of the kinds of systems (political, social, financial) that give rise to these destructive behaviors. But it is difficult to dismiss claims that Phillips and Silver are condoning this behavior. The way that Joker is venerated very early in the film and ultimately becomes a symbol of rebellion against the rich and the police is telling (despite his protestations that he is apolitical and has no capacity to lead a movement).

Add to this, the way that Phillips shoots these developments lovingly and in slow-motion. There is an intimacy that could be mistaken for complicity in Joker’s anarchy, especially in the on-the-nose song choices and most especially in the final scenes of chaos on Gotham’s streets. These are the instances where Joker feels specifically shot with movie posters, GIFs and memes in mind, as though Phillips is celebrating the “burn it all down” mentality of his anti-hero protagonist.

The Outcome

At the end of the day, Phillips, Silver, and DC are not responsible for the way that Joker is received, nor can they control particular groups who may appropriate the film or character for less than altruistic purposes. This does not, however, negate responses from individuals who are worried that there will be people who “misinterpret” the film and or that the film is already being “weaponized” by men who see themselves reflected in the Joker’s experience (see also: the strange fact that the number of Letterboxd reviews currently exceeds the number of people who could have feasibly seen the film).

Calls for boycotts or hand-wringing, however, are useless. This kind of response merely contributes to the film’s already sensational narrative; regardless of what happens between now and October, the film will be released and it will undoubtedly make tons of money.

At the end of the day, Joker is a standalone crime drama about an established DC property that could secure a variety of awards attention, particularly for Phoenix. It is also simultaneously a cultural touchstone – an opportunity for dialogue about the implications and the reception of films. If nothing else, the film provides an opportunity for education about why these issues are important.

Who would have guessed that a film about a clown could mean so much?

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