I’ve deliberately avoided as much as I can about Joker, I adore Batman and The Dark Knight Trilogy are some of my favourite films. I heard all the hype leading up to the film’s release, will it cause a social crisis and incite violence? Is it just buffed up nonsense? Given Joker’s popularity in alt-right/incel culture, the current political climate of what feels like a never ending battle of left vs. right, and in a comment from the director Todd Phillips (who has previously found success with the Hangover Trilogy) who stated he made Joker in response to ‘woke culture ruining comedy’ so wanted to make something darker, it perfectly encapsulates the polarising emotions behind what Joker represents and how it was received by audiences. Given the Aurora tragedy in 2012, the build up for this film seemed to purposefully bait and disrupt, at times in a tasteless way. Joaquin Phoenix, who himself has never been far from the spotlight of ‘all things strange’, walked out of interviews when asked if the film could incite violence and unrest and the accusation that it sympathises with and effectively creates the ‘white terrorist’ reference guide. It’s hard to avoid the similarities between the content of the film, and the very real threat of unstable individuals who turn to violence and extremism when they unjustly feel the world has given them no other options.
Stylistically, it’s hard to argue that Joker doesn’t achieve something quite beautiful. In a film where the narrative thread revolves around deterioration, confrontation and abuse, it really is a beautifully put together film. The colour palette of drained blues, yellows and reds, rich and sickly. The framing of shots, particularly in Arthur’s apartment that he shares with his elderly and senile mother, capture the smallness of Arthur’s world. The kitchen shining with LED blue in the background, cut in half by a wall, and the 1970’s washout, nicotine stained living room shrouded in darkness, reflect the conflict of sympathy and disgust that runs through the film. The film purposefully uses colour to highlight the critical turning points for Arthur, the crusted white face paint, the green spots on his emaciated grey and sallow body from hair dye, the fullness of the maroon in his suit. It creates a claustrophobia and a closeness, it feels like we’re watching something incredibly personal and tragic. There’s many shots throughout the film that focus on Arthur’s contorted face, sometimes it’s when he’s expressing his innermost thoughts, which are pointedly not listened to by the other characters he’s conversing with, or he’s behind wire grates, or windows. The environment of Gotham (New York in the real world) points towards the degradation constantly mentioned throughout the film, whether it’s Arthur’s mental stability slowly chipping away, or the state of the location – super rats feasting on garbage which isn’t being collected due to a strike. There’s flashes of obscenity, explicit content in Arthur’s diary, the cinema adverts showing adult films, and this combined with the violence that both is committed against Arthur and the heinous acts he commits himself, creates a dystopian landscape of decay, the inevitable downfall of Arthur is no surprise. He himself at one point says that all he has is negative thoughts.
Arthur frequently watches TV, he watches Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) a talk show host he is fixated with, which seems to inundate his thoughts with delusions of grandeur. Arthur tells most people he meets that he is a stand-up comedian, which the only evidence we see that this is real is a perfectly uncomfortable scene in which he performs at a club, and is met with silence, not that this seems to bother Arthur in the slightest. But we also meet Thomas Wayne through the TV, who is condemning violence in the city, calling those who rally against the rich in the city ‘clowns’. This establishes the main framework of Joker. Murray later mocks Arthur’s attempt at stand-up on his talk show, the media plays a significant role in the film, it’s used as a podium to spread political ideologies, to create the glittering view of fame and adoration, but also to mock and ridicule those who are less fortunate. When the clips of Arthur laughing uncontrollably during his stand-up set are aired on Murray’s show, it creates a poignantly depicted moment where briefly I sympathise with Arthur. The audience is fully aware of Arthur’s mental state, and his reliance on social services due to his mental illness, we then have to watch him being held up on TV and humiliated in front of the masses for ‘light entertainment’. In the real world, society seems to devour the act of humiliation, whether it’s an offensive tweet, or slip up in the public eye; we’re in a no holds-barred world where anyone and everyone is public property, even if the only evidence that person exists is a brief 10 second video clip. There’s no consideration for the actual make up of a person, we judge based on a blip, an incident, an out of context statement or action. The simple act of holding someone to account has turned to a lynch mob mentality, where it’s not enough to apologise and repent, social justice means losing everything you have; and then it might be enough for the masses.
The film owes a huge debt (possibly even royalties given the similarities) to Taxi Driver and Kings Of Comedy, which at this point isn’t even a thinly veiled reference, it’s a blatant descendent of the two films. There’s also touches of Falling Down and even Fight Club, all of which have a jilted, unhinged white male central character who’s environment and political climates reportedly inform their actions. As I watched Joker, I can absolutely see why there was a moral panic about the film’s message, it borders on sympathetic to Arthur, the references to mental illness (particularly the line in Arthur’s diary – ‘The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t’) it’s been designed to be somewhat sympathetic, even if the build up to the release included those involved in making the film removing themselves from the responsibility of the message. This is fairly problematic, the character of the Joker has always been held up as anti-hero, and in turn has morphed into a representation of justifiable chaos. The film canonises the Joker further. It’s a dangerous line to walk, particularly given that the film appears to reflect the state of the world at the moment. Particularly during the final scenes, it makes the overall message of Joker ambiguous. What should be a repellent view of degradation, a nastiness that is threaded throughout the film, is essentially revered and by the final scene, it’s obvious that this is the beginning of the Joker that we are well acquainted with. But similarly, if the film wasn’t too close to the mark, then it probably wouldn’t be honouring the source material. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable and confrontational. The link between chaos and environment is deliberately very strong. I do consider that given the strong iconic status of the Joker in culture, if this tone is right. In some ways, it just compounds the intensity and structure of the film, in others, it makes the content far more hostile and worrying.
I thoroughly enjoyed Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is engrossing. If it weren’t for his Joker predecessors, it could be considered the greatest portrayal of the Joker on screen, but with Ledger and Nicholson firmly cemented in history with their performances, Phoenix just simply adds to the full alumni of outstanding performances for this character. The lengths that Phoenix went to to truly immortalise his portrayal of the Joker, are astonishing. His skeletal frame is as much as a set piece as the environment is. His bones cutting through the scenery, his ribs and contorted body, inhuman looking. His body serves to show the panic and instability in Arthur’s life, this weak man who is nothing more than a shell for some hugely problematic thoughts and beliefs, surprisingly harbours a frightening amount of violence and chaos. Jarring for someone who on first glance looks pitiful and inadequate. The music in Joker wonderfully complements the on-screen actions and script. It really struck me just how powerful the music was, this wispy, spiky soundtrack mixed in with songs about clowns and smiling, and spots of normality with pop songs. The music becomes more and more prominent the lower Arthur falls, the orchestral composition slowly becomes more and more intrusive and threatening throughout the film. The film is expertly made, it’s beautiful to look at, the framing of scenes, the colours and the narrative is crafted perfectly. It’s a hard hitting and human addition to the darker and edgier productions we’ve seen in recent years around a favourite childhood superhero and is a welcome break from the shiny metallic superhero movies where good vs. evil seems to be a very cut and dry narrative. Joker complicates that – not because we’re in any doubts about how evil the Joker is, but it gives a packed out story where it’s difficult to distinguish sympathy from pity and reverence from disgust – much more interesting than being evil for the sake of being evil.