Zachary Dirksen — Staff Writer
The character of the Joker is, for lack of a better word, iconic. The Clown Prince of Crime has been causing mayhem for Batman and the rest of the DC Comics Universe since 1940. In film adaptions, the character has ranged from a giggling prankster, to mobster with a midlife crisis, to domestic terrorist, to over-tattooed street punk. Through it all, the Joker never lost his hype, so it seemed inevitable that a solo film was in the works. And now, in 2019, we have one.
In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix dons the green hair and face paint. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck: party clown by day, aspiring stand-up comedian by night. But, as he’s told by many, he’s not funny. Arthur suffers from a myriad of mental illnesses, including a condition that forces loud, screeching laughter to explode out of him when he’s sad or distressed. In 1980’s Gotham City, that doesn’t put you on the path to stardom. Trash covers the streets of Gotham. Unions are on strike, and the mayor is doing little to ease the rising pressure. Local aristocrat Thomas Wayne’s got a plan, some hopefully declare, while others just see Wayne as another fat cat who looks down on the less fortunate.
Gotham’s on the verge of chaos, and Arthur’s on the verge of breakdown. And, as the dominos of fate begin to fall, Arthur’s transformation into a deranged killer pushes Gotham’s citizens to the breaking point. No one can stop it. Certainly, not Batman. Bruce Wayne is still a young, yet-to-be-orphaned child. Not the police. They’re too busy with Gotham’s legendary crime rate. Gotham will burn, and Arthur’s here to stoke the fires and watch.
On a technical level, Joker is a great film. The cinematography fits the tone like a glove. A gritty aesthetic paints Gotham as a slummy, dirty hellhole, the exact kind of place from which we would imagine Joker’s emergence. The music is also note-worthy, pairing Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting cello-based score with late-career Sinatra tracks, perfectly balancing terror with cruel irony. And Phoenix is amazing as Arthur, bringing a compelling, terrifying vibe to a character who is almost entirely unsympathetic. It’s clear from the start of the movie that he’s too far gone. But, like a train wreck, we can’t look away from what happens next.
It’s in that area, however, that Joker also majorly fumbles. The film refuses to give us someone to root for. Everyone is bad. Arthur is bad for murdering people. The rioters Arthur inspires are bad because their violent actions affect the innocent. Thomas Wayne is bad for talking about helping the poor but doing nothing of consequence. “Society” is bad because it abandons people like Arthur. There are no “good” people here.
Joker asserts that some kind of change is needed, but it is unwilling to offer any solutions to the problem outside of violence. By the end of the movie, we’re left not feeling terrified by Arthur’s new persona, nor at ease in the feeling that justice has run its course. Instead, we’re numb, desensitized to the violent anarchy we’ve subjected ourselves to.
It becomes apparent from the beginning that the film is also a near carbon-copy of Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, in which a mentally troubled Vietnam veteran struggles to fit into a dirty, late-70’s New York. Just like Arthur, Taxi Driver’s main character devolves into a violent, anti-social maniac. But, where Travis Bickle sees himself as a hero, Arthur Fleck doesn’t see himself as anything. He “believes in nothing,” as he declares at the film’s climax. Whereas Taxi Driver was a cautionary tale about untreated mental health and problems vets faced when returning from an unpopular war, Joker is not.
Joker’s violence is almost glorified, as if each act of violence is entirely appropriate for the characters, because “society” isn’t what it should be. There’s no solution to the problems of “society” except shooting somebody. For a villain like the Joker, that may be enough, but I found it fairly misguided and poorly-thought-out. Yet, the film seems to project that all is fine, merely because Warner Bros. slapped on the name Joker and pitched it as his origin story.
I firmly believe a good film can have a villain as its protagonist. Heck, the Joker in The Dark Knight is arguably the main character, and that movie is universally loved. The difference here is there’s no true opposition, no moral counter to Arthur’s wrongdoing. We don’t like what Arthur does but the film gives us no alternative, no better options.
Joker is a well-put-together film with a stellar performance from Joaquin Phoenix, but there are no answers here. No punchline. Just chaos. A good fit for a fictional villain, but maybe not the best for the real world.