“This isn’t about politics. I’m not political” Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck announces in a pivotal climactic scene of Todd Phillips’ Joker. It begs the question of whether Phillips’ film, which has been labelled a cinematic siren for incels and a regressive depiction of masculine suffering more suited to an era before online antifeminist discourse became rampant, intends to say anything political at all.
Or, in attempting to frame the psychosis of a broken man through a filter of comic-book thrills, has it simply become an unintentional scapegoat for American media neurosis that has been building upon fears of violence and far-right rebellion throughout the last few years of the Trump era?
Phoenix is the third actor in eleven years to don the iconic clown makeup on the big screen; his performance — while certainly not without its iconic moments — still remains in the shadow of Heath Ledger’s generation-defining work in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, lacking the full-bodied insanity that powered Ledger’s Joker to becoming the face on a million teenagers’ bedroom walls.
Yet Joker is a film with obvious intentions of adorning many a college dorm wall in its own right, capturing a profoundly unhealthy spirit of superficial modern male rage that is sub-Fight Club, sub-American Psycho and reminds us that, given people were actually capable of thought and compassion twenty years ago, the twin embarrassments of Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro would probably have been laughed at — relentlessly, Joker style — in 1999.
Phillips has wrangled a cacophony of film influences into an aesthetic that is, while certainly unique, often too derivative of already-iconic work to take at face value: the homages to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy don’t get more obvious than the casting of Robert De Niro as a comedy talkshow host idolised by Arthur, but there are equally unsubtle tributes to work like Paddy Chayefksy’s 1976 screenplay for Network, the story of a news anchor kickstarting a political uprising through simply communicated TV imagery (and there’s nothing more simple than a man dressed as a clown).
Joker is a film concerned with media and its relationship to social unrest, and so it’s ironic how this film has become such a talking-point in the never-ending debate over art’s ability to glorify and motivate violence. But one suspects Phillips simply wasn’t sufficiently tuned in to (and I use this wearily) “the discourse” when he wrote Joker.
Like Quentin Tarantino he’s a rebel storyteller of a previous era who’s contempt for millennial and gen Z social values comes across not as rationally exhausted, but as an excuse to mock the vulnerable and liberally distribute ethnic slurs in their scripts (not that Joker does this; unlike a certain parody Twitter account, Warner Bros have kept this script relatively squeaky-clean).
The stage is set with little delay or messing about: meet Arthur Fleck when he’s working for a clown hire company called Ha Ha’s, spinning an advertising sign on a street corner, when he’s not caring for his frail mother (the great, appropriately spooky Frances Conroy). His frequent public humiliation is one element contributing to mental deterioration that his psychiatrist struggles to help him control. He scribbles “negative thoughts” in a journal, and some of these he has developed into stand-up comedy segments. He lusts after a female neighbour (Zazie Beetz), yet their interactions are minor and largely uncomfortable: as, in fairness, is every second of Phoenix’s strange, skittish performance.
Combining the aesthetics of Shrek Forever After’s Rumpelstiltskin and Brandon Lee’s The Crow, he leans too heavily into a cartoonish laugh that is at first effectively sinister but descends into tedious repetition. Yet he never hits the painfully aggressive “twisted” notes of Jared Leto in Suicide Squad, still the least interesting possible version of this character. Arthur, in the film’s worst moments, still feels like a fully-formed human being with more ties to Scorsese protagonists of old than recent, generic Batman rogues (this film’s surprising efforts to tie into Batman canon are… peculiar and, in my opinion, intensely unnecessary and merely pandering to a segment of the audience frustrated by the slow pace and lack of spectacle).
Phillips has assembled an enigmatic supporting cast around Phoenix: De Niro is something of a moral anchor amidst the controlled chaos as a Jay Leno type who fulfils the same function Jerry Lewis did in The King Of Comedy. Dual Atlanta stars Zazie Beetz and Bryan Tyree Henry are warm peripheral presences, while Bill Camp and Shea Whigham lend some prestige status as the detectives who may or may not be onto Joker’s tail. Camp’s Leftovers colleague Justin Theroux is, for some reason, also in this film in an incredibly easy-to-miss cameo. I guess everyone just loves working with Todd Phillips.
The film ramps up the surprises and — that key, aforementioned term — spectacle in its final act, as Arthur’s transformation into the familiar monster escalates and the city that has treated him like a joke for so long begins to catch up to his dark philosophies, with clown masks aplenty. While gasping for the creative graces of The Dark Knight’s clown-infused opening heist, Joker’s climax is certainly an unexpected visual marvel, but it’s all very Mr. Robot, and while it certainly has a visceral kick, this sort of thing has been done better before.
Despite what the polar ends of American media have led us to believe, Joker isn’t quite powerful enough to incite any kind of real-life revolution, but it’s somewhat refreshing to see a film this intellectually-curious — and starring a commercially-opaque method actor in his first purely mainstream role — open to a box office of almost $100m in one weekend. Very twisted indeed.