Major studios usually try their hardest to steer free of controversy, especially for their awards contenders. Most comic book movies play it safe as well. Rarely has a fall release invited such toxic discourse before a single scene played to the public. The objections to Todd Phillips’ Joker can’t be brushed aside, inviting filmgoers to look askance. Joker is a violent character study, featuring immaculate technical achievements, troublesome narratives, and an incredible performance from Joaquin Phoenix.
The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an advertisement clown living with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a rundown apartment complex. Having once worked for Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), Penny writes to him everyday for assistance: He always said those who worked for him were his family. Meanwhile, Arthur holds visions of grandeur. Him and his mother watch the Murray Franklin Show every night. He desperately wants to be Murray (Robert De Niro), pursuing a career as a stand-up comedian, and writing down jokes in his notebook — though that book is really filled with deranged scribbles. His aspirations mirror that of The Man Who Laughs, Killing Joke, and Rupert Pumpkin in The King of Comedy, ironically played by De Niro. Called “Happy” by his mother, Arthur suffers from a disorder: He uncontrollably laughs no matter the moment, for which he carries a card explaining such to strangers.
Joker follows Fleck’s descent into violence and murder, as he “defends” himself against a city looking for a hero. Thomas Wayne purports himself as that hero, he’s running for mayor. However, Gotham is beset by crime and poverty — a classic and relevant struggle between the haves and the have nots. Arthur’s world mirrors the New York of the 70’s, captured in Taxi Driver, where vigilantism and violent upheaval dominated the radical political atmosphere. Fleck barely survives in this period. But a series of events causes him to transform, question his identity, and take revenge on those who have wronged him. All the while, he harbors a crush on his next door neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who initially appears to reciprocate his feelings even after two startling advancements.
Phillips’ film is visually stunning. Relying on eloquent tracking shots with a gritty mise-en-scène — hues of orange and grey color Joker‘s vicious world. Jeff Groth’s editing lightly pieces together Phoenix’s delicate dances, while Lawrence Sher’s cinematography eases circle pans like a red tight bow around a present from a 70’s Macy’s cashier. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s brooding score eviscerates the light flame of goodness in the dark world of Gotham. And though he only receives one scene of screen time, Brian Tyree Henry crafts every second on the screen to a perfect effect as an Arkham hospital clerk.
One of the fears associated with Joker was its violence. While brutal, Phillips’ film isn’t anymore bloody or visceral than any mainstream horror or action flick, like John Wick. However, Fleck’s New York isn’t necessarily Phillips’, born in 1970. Like Tarantino’s creation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his approximations of the period arrive through derivations of media from the era. Nevertheless, like any copy of a copy, the meaning degrades with each flat and simple homage. While the visuals for Joker are striking and carefully captured, the artificiality of such enlivens the fact that our political climate is vastly different from the 70’s Joker purports to be, though our unfounded social fears remain the same.
With Philips, though the 1% is feared, so is the mindless mob. In the 99%’s “defense,” he reaffirms classist panic: The poor relying on the idolatry of figureheads as a path to mindless violence. He conflates Wayne with Trump, but who really stirs the people’s blood? Not Wayne, an odd conclusion. Instead, the murderous criminal for which they see themselves in: Fleck. The horror of an incel hero, while not completely founded in Joker, still asks for empathy for him. And seemingly, Phillips’ film says we should also worry about those with mental illnesses for they are the unintentional plague bringers primed for bloodshed. Phillips is only missing gays to win backwards fears bingo.
And yet, Phoenix bewitches our eyes enough to not enliven Phillips’ fatigued premises. Many have pointed out this performance as just a copy of his engrossing turn in The Master. But it’s his body that makes this moment singular. And it’s not just the 56 lbs he loss to play the part. His body, usually stiff and masculine–even when his characters are maimed in body and soul–is loose and graceful here. Sure his rib cage is exposed enough to play a xylophone, but there’s poetry in his movements. Limber and eloquent, dancing to his own exhilarating tune, he’s a regal prisoner escaped from the compound palace of his figure, marching through the marketplace. Mixed with his back-throated laugh, his signature spikes of rage, face paint and velvet suit, Phoenix creates a Joker separate from any other.
The film’s violent incel hero by its end becomes mere fodder, an accidental soldier in a war on divergent culture and classes. Nevertheless, I still digress to the overall discourse surrounding Joker—which is probably more compulsive and dangerous than the film itself. What responsibility exists for the creator, and for that matter, the audience? We interpret works from “innumerable centers of culture,” rarely from the mind of one artist. Films, in their collaborative efforts, create strips of tape on top of one another: The myriad of ideas by all involved and our interpretations are hardly transparent. The world out there is crazy, and unintentionally that insanity is reflected back upon us through social media: Twitter and Facebook, cable news, our fringe online discourses, and through Phillips’ film too. In short, with Joker we peer into the looking glass, and that’s what scares us. The very act increases the schadenfreude we know already exists within our discourse. And while Joker contains multitudes: both an irresponsible use of disability and mental illness, and a capsule for our current culture, the art surrounding the filmmaking itself is inescapable. And so is the brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix.