A pungent plethora of hot-button words are being branded into the film flesh of Todd Phillips’ Joker. Be them complementary or damning, they seemingly cannot be rubbed away. An interesting debate to have is classifying which of those fiery adjectives actually talk about the film and not some external controversy, projection, trigger, or angle being spun before Joker even hits public screens. Not to be undone, this writer offers a self-appointed definitive word centered on the movie itself, one that he’s never used in a review in nine years and change. The word is gall.
LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF “GALL” — According to Dictionary.com, the four possible meanings of the noun span impudence, severity, bitterness of spirit, and rancor. To saunter a little cruder, which is fitting for the movie in play, the Urban Dictionary defines the word as audacity, balls, or something risky. Hot damn, Joker is each one of those descriptors from both sources and then some.
Joker has the gall to go an R-rated level of violence. The performers have the gall to attempt generating sympathy for a villain and show those connective actions in all of their uncomfortable cruelty. Joker has the gall to shove away the sunny glibness of what comic book movies have become today at their peak popularity. The writers have the gall to blaze a maze of social commentary trails and not borrow from any comic source. The director and studio have the gall to do all of this on the competitive film festival circuit rising to the biggest platform of release. And that all is just its general existence.
Between the credits, every fleck and pore of Joker is drenched in gall as well. From an opening scene that begins with a slippery tear temporarily erasing a small streak of makeup to the final one of a fade-out coda set to Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” that trades tears for bloody smears, the insolence escalates in a drastic manner and you cannot take your eyes off of it all. Joker is a twisted pair of narrative vines, one descending into evil and the other rising in motivated malice.
The twitchiest man in Hollywood, Joaquin Phoenix, plays Arthur Fleck, a lonely Gotham City weakling living with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy from American Horror Story anthologies) and holding down the pitiful job of being a clown-for-hire. Arthur dreams of better by journaling to become a stand-up comedian bringing laughter to the masses much like his television idol, late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, switching shoes and feet from his old Scorsese entry The King of Comedy). The gaunt sad sack plods through a 1980s urban landscape of scum and social hatred. Joaquin’s first line of dialogue, an ignored question, says it all: “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
LESSON #2: BE MINDFUL OF THE GESTURES YOU GIVE AND HOW PEOPLE TAKE THEM — Though not assigned or identified by name in the movies, the former mental patient is a card-carrying sufferer of Pseudobulbar affect (PBA). Arthur’s miswired emotional incontinence has cackling replacing crying when his feelings overcome his faculties. Too often, this is the wrong way for someone like Arthur to get noticed. He lacks many social graces and allows spoonfed optimism to talk him down.
This Gotham environment also eats Arthur alive, one peck and one setback at a time. His mother’s advice of “smile and put on a happy face” doesn’t cut it and Arthur discovers the gun as a great equalizer of empowerment. When the wannabe entertainer uses it and takes lives, the act of murder liberates instead of rattles him. Beyond Arthur, his vigilante crime inspires anti-rich sentiments and protests throughout the city. Anarchy becomes what makes him smile and the tremors of which explode when the movement finds its poster boy and mouthpiece.
LESSON #3: WHEN ALL YOU HAVE ARE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS — Thoughts should stop at thoughts if they are harmful. By the dynamite third act, the barrier of consideration of safety is gone with Joker. You in the audience will reach a point where you cannot assign sympathy here anymore. That’s precisely the point. Rooting for this movie doesn’t condone the character or make you a cheerleader. It makes you recognize and respect all that brave gall splattered all over the place to muster the evil nucleus.
Director Todd Phillips and company put Joker in the capable hands of Joaquin Phoenix and he creates an iteration of the iconic villain all his own. For anyone who has seen any period of Joaquin’s lengthy resume, fidgets are his specialty. Rage is in Phoenix’s regular range and flips it on like a lightswitch when necessary. On paper, playing the eventual Clown Prince of Crimes is not a big stretch. This could have been as easy as Phillips getting his frequent cinematography collaborator Lawrence Sher to have the camera on when he tells Joaquin “just be weird.”
However, believing it is that simple would be shortchanging the performer who methodically channels straight and convincing madness with every drag from a lit cigarette to every mood-changing and entrancing dance move. Midway through the movie, Arthur writes down a poetic nugget in his diary that reads “People expect you to behave as if you don’t.” That’s a pure and blunt parallel between the character and the actor. Watching Joaquin’s poisonous performance is maniacally mesmerizing.
Joker’s artistically seedy aesthetic for moral decline and unchecked depravity creates the proper cesspool for energizing the corrupt title character. If Beale Street Could Talk production designer Mark Friedberg and The Greatest Showman art director Laura Ballinger empower the flickering fluorescent bulbs and walls of graffiti to reflect inner and outer ugliness. The complete atmosphere is made scarier by the ominous musical score from composer and Sicario series cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir. The production value rumbles all senses. Again, this too is gall.
Even without drawing from a specified comic canon source, the most important question of Joker is whether director Todd Phillips and company got this character right. It is possible to be too divergent to really fly. That’s where smart audiences can skip Nicholson, Ledger, Leto, and Romero to ask what’s the core. The essence is the unfathomable enigma. We may very well have an unreliable narrator from Phillips and his screenwriting partner Scott Silver, an Oscar nominee for The Fighter. Combine the twists and turns with the balletically bizarre lead and you have the oozing mystery that fits the urban myth preserved by the graphic novels.
So, how does one take a movie like Joker and all the frenzy surrounding it? Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s up to each viewer. Since the works of Martin Scorsese are correctly being sourced (or bastardized in some opinions) for homage, Robert De Niro rub and all, I’ll submit Roger Ebert’s words be neutral reasoning. The old film critic master said the following about The King of Comedy 36 years ago:
“Scorsese doesn’t want laughs in this movie, and he also doesn’t want release. The whole movie is about the inability of the characters to get any kind of a positive response to their bids for recognition. It is not, you may already have guessed, a fun movie. It is also not a bad movie. It is frustrating to watch, unpleasant to remember, and, in its own way, quite effective.”
Todd Phillips has the very same prickly and problematic brilliance on his hands. Let the polarization begin.