Review: Joker (2019)


Let’s get this out of the way off the top: Joker is neither an incitement to violence, nor a celebration of incel culture or whatever lonely, violent, male outcasts the media have chosen to obsess with in recent years. As well, for a film touted as a revolution in blockbuster filmmaking, Joker is largely familiar in its broad strokes. As evidenced by its trailers, advertisements, and promotional interviews, Joker is a pastiche of antihero dramas from the late seventies and early eighties, primarily Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. It’s an in-depth character portrait of a violent and repulsive individual, similar to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It also takes a psychological approach that is almost entirely borrowed from other cinematic milestones. And yet, it is also a comic book movie and for a genre that is primarily interested in spectacle and pandering to the audience, Joker instead subverts audience sympathy and takes the viewer down a path rarely explored in these types of movies. Even more intriguing is that it might be the first comic book film to be primarily focused on character psychology, with almost no interest in action. Thus, even though Joker is no masterwork in terms of filmmaking, it ranks as one of the most interesting blockbusters of our superhero-saturated recent years.

Set in a crime-stricken, rat-infested Gotham City in 1981, Joker follows Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck as he transforms from a mentally-impaired, low-rent clown to a psychotic killer and icon of rage for the city’s disaffected. In some ways, the film functions as an origin story for a comic book character that has loomed large over the imagination of comic book fans, especially since Heath Ledger’s iconic turn in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But aside from during a few key moments, director Todd Phillips leaves the commentary on the comic book character entirely by the wayside. Phoenix and Phillips seem disinterested in tying this Joker too closely to the comic book character. In fact, aside from influences from some comic storylines, especially Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Joker barely seems to be a comic book movie. That is, until you start to examine how it tells its story and how it manipulates audience sympathy to align the viewer with a character’s moral rot, which is what makes it such an interesting film.

Joker’s narrative and stylistic approach is largely cribbed from Scorsese and begins with Fleck as a sympathetic, if wounded, outsider only to gradually jettison audience sympathy as he becomes empowered by his dysfunctions and begins to indulge his own rage fantasies. Thus, it operates much like Taxi Driver does, with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle transforming from disaffected and put-upon cab driver to apocalyptic vigilante and terrorist. But it also operates like a superhero origin story. We’re introduced to Arthur’s tragic family situation, living in a low-rent apartment caring for his emotionally-abusive mom (Frances Conroy), and we witness him being bullied at work and at home and dumped by the social welfare system. An opening scene of him being beaten up by kids while dressed as a clown mirrors the kind of scenes found in other superhero films like Spider-Man, where Peter Parker’s mistreatment at the hands of others increases our sympathy for the character.

Also, like in other superhero films, we get the moment of empowerment, where the protagonist realizes he’s not helpless. In Spider-Man and other conventional superhero narratives, this happens after the hero has acquired superpowers and uses those powers to stand up for themselves against criminals or bullies. In Joker, Arthur also stands up for himself on a subway as three Wall Street-types drunkenly beat him after he gets into one of his involuntary laughing fits. However, instead of heroically dispatching the bullies through some feat of superpowers, he shoots them dead with a handgun given to him by a coworker. His reaction to abuse is much the same as other protagonists of comic book movies (which even involve the hero killing the villains, as in Iron Man), but the consequences are far more dire than in Spider-Man and other superhero films. And the implications are far more sinister, as just like Iron Man or Spider-Man, Arthur grows emboldened and begins to indulge his fantasies realizing that he’s not quite as powerless as he thought. Thus, the film begins to subvert comic book conventions in order to craft its portrait of a narcissistic, mentally-damaged killer. In a way, it weaponizes our familiarity with comic book power fantasies and hero narratives only to make us willing to indulge Arthur’s fantasties even after they’ve ceased being morally excusable (while also challenging the very definition of what is and isn’t excusable).

That’s where the originality of Joker comes into play. It’s not that this narrative and stylistic approach is new to cinema as a whole, but it is new to comic book cinema. Furthermore, it may be the first comic book movie to play as a character drama instead of as an action film or adventure. It’s a startling approach for a comic book movie, and while it occasionally strains in its attempts to be more than another superhero flick, there’s enough genuine artistry on display to excuse some of the self-seriousness.

I’ve said almost nothing about Joaquin Phoenix until this point, but his excellent performance is central to the film’s appeal. In fact, it essentially is the entirety of the film, as Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s washed-out, narrow-focus visual approach simply externalizes the mental world that Phoenix conjures through his performance. As well, he’s in almost every frame of the movie. 

Phoenix has always been among the most physical leading men in Hollywood, manipulating his weight and stature in ways that embody the various mental ailments of his characters. He’s also a tremendously sad actor, with a hangdog face and milky eyes that tease at deep wounds lingering beneath the surface. Here, Phoenix plays into his lanky sadness, losing weight and wearing a permanent grimace that almost seems a portrait of a sad clown even when he’s not wearing makeup. By the film’s end, when he’s fully given into his power fantasies, the slip from sadness to glee on his grimacing face is only terrifying because Phoenix has let us feel Arthur’s pain for so much of the film up to that point.

Phoenix’s commitment is central to the film’s effect on the viewer. If we didn’t so keenly feel his pain early on in the film, Joker would never build up the sympathy it needs to subvert by film’s end. Thus, without a strong performance at its centre, the rest of the film would be a fruitless endeavour. But let’s not discount the script by Phillips and Scott Silver either, which is familiar in its narrative beats, but crafts a convincing, and accurate, portrait of a narcissistic psychopath. 

Much is made of his involuntary laughing and the uncomfortable, chilling effect it makes when watching the film, but there’s more to the laughs than mere provocation. They are also a key indicator of Arthur’s misanthropy, as he always laughs when someone is being humiliated. This can be himself or others, as indicated on the subway murder scene, when he cackles at the sight of a woman being harrassed by the men, only for his laughing to grow more uncontrollable once he becomes the target of humiliation. This helps show how Arthur views everything and everyone as a joke, a reflection of his own self image. He’s entirely self-absorbed, and while other disaffected people grow inspired by his behaviour in the film, he’s completely indifferent to their plight. He’s an example of a negative narcissist, which is an individual that is not only convinced that the world revolves around them, but convinced that everyone else seeks to do them harm. 

Joker is clever not to give this away too early in the film as it plays Arthur as more a familiar outcast type of the kind we’re used to in films like this. He’s genuinely mistreated by others and the social circumstances of Gotham City, such as cuts to social services and rampant crime, only exacerbate his mental condition. However, the script doesn’t give Arthur the out of blaming his misfortune on others, and as becomes abundantly clear by film’s end, he is only concerned about injustice as it pertains to him. As he begins to indulge his fantasies, he starts to violently lash out at those who mistreated him, but he does nothing to help others. His rage is fixated on those he perceives as having slighted him.

This transformation comes to a head during the film’s climax when Arthur appears in full clown makeup on the talk show of his idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). It’s a chilling scene, that starts in an almost goofy way but slowly ratchets into a horrifying display of malice. The audience was completely silent throughout the screening I was at, which is fitting since it’s the moment in the film where all delusions about Arthur’s apparently sympathetic plight are cast off to show him as the psychopath he truly is. Furthermore, Phillips does a good job of building tension through subtle manipulation of the shot construction, restricting the frame to increasingly-tighter close-ups of Phoenix and De Niro as the scene plays out. It’s a suffocating effect, as it essentially handcuffs us to Arthur’s point of view and forces us to comprehend just what kind of villain we’ve been sympathizing with for almost two hours. It’s as if Phillips is playing “Gotcha!” with the viewer, refusing to give the viewer objective distance just at the moment when the viewer realizes how their sympathy has been exploited.

This kind of tactic, of manipulating superhero movie conventions in order to force us to delve into the psyche of an evil man, is why Joker is a fascinating work. Its conclusions about the ways that psychopaths operate in the world are not revelatory, but coming from a genre that almost never explores anything beyond the most simple human psychology, it is doing both noteworthy and commendable work. If superhero movies continue to be the dominant mode of cinematic storytelling, Joker offers us another way of exploiting this monoculture and using it to shed light on other aspects of humanity than our fantasies of empowerment and visions of utopian power. It posits that superhero movies may be able to tell us something true about the worst of us along with the best.

8 out of 10

Joker (USA)

Directed by Todd Phillips; written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, Leigh Gill.