Joker movie review: Joaquin Phoenix delivers Oscar-worthy performance in daring and distressing masterpiece
Director - Todd Phillips
Cast - Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Marc Maron
“All it takes,” the Joker famously said once, “is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” And that is all that separates him from the rest of society. One bad day.
This quote, as fans of the Batman comics would know, comes from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s seminal 1988 graphic novel, The Killing Joke, which is one of only a handful of recognisable comic book influences on director Todd Phillips’ Joker. I couldn’t think of a more thematically relevant quote to sum up this incendiary new film, which is at once a fable about moral decay, and a cautionary tale about societal division.
Watch the Joker trailer here
Besides a couple of tacked-on moments (including a cute speech by the Trumpian Thomas Wayne about men who hide behind masks), Joker has very little to offer fans of comic book movies. It is, instead, inspired (heavily) by the bleak philosophy of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy; an unrelentingly distressing drama about loneliness and unchecked mental illness.
From its gloriously gripping opening scene to its jaw-dropping final moments, it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible performance as Arthur Fleck, as much as you might want to. But it is this very repulsion that Phillips, I believe, is attempting to tap into.
There were several moments in the film, including Arthur’s introductory scene, when I wanted to avert my eyes, as many of us do when confronted with things that make us uncomfortable. Our first instinct, understandably, is to get as far away from the discomfort as possible. But no matter how far we run, the source of our problems will remain, festering in its own misery; drowning in its own despair.
Phillips looks at Arthur, a mentally ill loner, not with judgement, but with a mixture of pity and empathy. Despite his troubles, Arthur — crucially and controversially — isn’t a bad person. He is eternally ridiculed, bullied, and beaten up; living at the mercy of a system that doesn’t give two hoots about him or his ailing mother.
Now this may well be problematic for some audiences. God knows I’ve struggled with what to feel about it myself. A sympathetic portrayal of a someone who is clearly modelled after one of those mass murderers that we hear about on the news, especially in 2019, a year in which there have been a reported 334 mass shootings in America, seems highly irresponsible.
Joker isn’t an easy film to watch; nor is it particularly easy to understand. It isn’t meant to be. For instance, I don’t for one second believe that Phillips could be tactless enough to glorify a psychopath in the manner that his film suggests. Arthur is most certainly humanised, but he is never idolised. He is a product of the same civilised society that has dedicated itself to pushing him to the fringes of existence and ignoring his frequent cries for help.
After an unrelentingly grim couple of acts, Joker transforms into a broad (but pitch-black) satire towards the end. This switch in tone, in my opinion, is what pulls the film off the ledge that it was fully prepared to leap from.
And Arthur is, lest we forget, a highly unreliable narrator. Coupled with the knowledge that he is prone to imagining things — like Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, he has a tendency to bathe himself in delusions of self-grandeur — I fear that there is a very real chance for the film to be misinterpreted by precisely the sort of people who shouldn’t be seeing it as a validation of their dangerous feelings.
The risks, tragically, are quantifiable. A Taxi Driver fan tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Mark David Chapman had a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his pocket when he shot John Lennon. Charles Manson heard secret messages in the music of the Beatles. And only Shahid Kapoor knows how many sexist Tik-Tokers Kabir Singh has spawned.
That being said, I find it ridiculous that the same people who reject the notion of movies being responsible for inciting real-life violence are the ones panicking about Joker inspiring mass shooters. This is a reductive theory that wastes everyone’s time by diverting attention from where it should be (gun control and mental health treatment) to where it shouldn’t (movies, books, video games, etc). No sane person will watch this film and feel compelled to assassinate their least-favourite politician.
But then again, aren’t we all just ‘one bad day’ away from pulling the trigger?
It is possible, however, that Phillips might have overestimated the intellect of his audience. By leaving such a crucial aspect of the film open to interpretation — that finale can stoke exactly the sort of polarisation that Phillips is trying to pulverise — the filmmaker might have bitten off more than he could chew. He ditches his typically playful ‘A Todd Phillips movie’ credit in favour of the infinitely more self-serious ‘A film by Todd Phillips’, but these are just cosmetic changes, not unlike Arthur slathering his face with makeup to mask his damaged psyche.
But despite pretentious flourishes such as this, Phillips must be celebrated for extracting an all-time great performance out of Phoenix. Much of the film frames him in painterly portraits shot by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, highlighting his sorrowful eyes; his distinct features; and the pain on his face as he erupts into involuntary bouts of mirthless laughter. Observe how the camera switches perspective as the film goes on, surrendering its position of superiority as Arthur’s transformation takes place. And do not miss the subtle shift in Phoenix’s body-language, as he sheds Arthur’s skin and slaps on a thick layer of clown makeup.
This is largely a one-man show, and the supporting actors, including Zazie Beetz and Robert De Niro, appear mostly in extended cameos. They’re solid, just underused. The biggest presence besides Phoenix, you’d be surprised to learn, is the eerie score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, who honed her skills under the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson. Her wailing cello perfectly captures Arthur’s fraying mental state.
Joker is a great film, not because of what it provides, but because of what it withholds. It’s brave, beautiful, and bound to annoy some people. Expect Oscars.