Note: Joker spoilers ahead. Be warned.
There’s a point in Todd Phillips’ Joker where you’ll turn on the character. At least, that’s the hope of the filmmakers. At a Q&A at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Philips seemed confident that his take on the titular supervillain’s origin story does not, as critics have said, glorify the violent actions on display. Joaquin Phoenix plays the Joker role with such nuance and careful thought that the turning point of the audience on the character might be at the moment the film starts, or when the closing credits roll, or at almost any point in between. But the point is that you have to turn on him, because it’s indefensible to root for Phoenix by the time he dons the iconic makeup and purple suit at the end of this movie.
Aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) endures humiliation on top of humiliation. The promotional sign he twirls on a street corner is stolen from him, and then Fleck is accused of stealing it himself after the thieves beat him with it. A gun, forced on him by a well-meaning coworker, clatters to the floor as Fleck performs his clown routine at a children’s hospital, costing him his job. Fleck’s hapless therapist explains that her services are on the chopping block, leaving Fleck without a sounding board for his erratic thoughts, or even for the medication required to keep his mental illness (never specified) at bay. And the rotten cherry on top is that Fleck’s idol, a late-night tv show host named Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro, in an inverted take on his character in The King Of Comedy) openly mocks a video of Fleck’s performance at a comedy club on air. All this leads to a spiral towards Fleck’s breaking point, culminating in a climax that, for all the folks that were put off by Batman’s absence from this film and the fact that the Joker branding is more than a little superfluous in this story, is chaotic and Joker-esque as fuck.
Even the more cynical reviews of Joker have allowed for justified fawning over Phoenix’s portrayal of Fleck. Phoenix undertakes a full-body physical transformation from a shy but well-meaning man who only wants to make the world smile, to a violent, unhinged maniac. It’s hard to know what comes from the pages of the screenplay and what are Phoenix’s outstanding acting instincts, but the result is a performance so riveting that the main charge against the film is that he’s too likable, too engrossing to play a character that’s so reprehensible, at least by the end of the film.
Early (or earlier) reviews of Joker have contained no small amount of hand-wringing that the violence into which Fleck descends will further radicalize the alienated, lonely, marginalized among us, promoting the kind of violence often associated with incels and school shooters. I can understand this position, and it certainly doesn’t feel like fake outrage when they come from the families of gun-violence victims. But after having seen the film, I think that some of the criticism along these lines rings hollow. Joker is hardly the first film with a protagonist that does unspeakable things. Since you will probably know going in that you’re watching a villain’s origin story, I feel like your expectations should be pretty clear-cut. It’s not like these films aren’t available outside the United States, where gun violence is far more prevalent than in other regions. And study after study has shown that links between violent media and violent behaviour is tenuous, at best. At the same time, Todd Phillips, not unlike Fleck in this film, is making it very difficult to root for him as he goes through the press junket for Joker. Why is everyone the worst?
All of this is to say that I think it’s good that we’re having this conversation, inasmuch as you reading a thing I wrote is a conversation, or folks screaming at a movie screen that can’t talk back is a conversation. My biggest hope is that the discourse about Joker comes around to ‘access to guns’ as the main cause for gun violence instead of ‘a movie with a clown shooting people’, but I’m not getting my hopes up. Joker wasn’t even the most gun-crazy shooty actioner I saw at TIFF (that prize goes to the action-comedy, Guns Akimbo). But, because Joker is a “comic book movie”, a loosely-applied tag for a film that follows no Joker origin story from the comics and has only a paper-thin connection to Batman at all, it’s gotten a lot more high-profile criticism and attention.
Philips and Phoenix have crafted a vision of Joker/Fleck here that might be sympathetic and deeply nuanced, but only to a point. You can only watch so much of this before you realize that what Joker is doing is cartoonish villainy in a gritty and realistic package, regardless of how sad the story is that led to that point. If you’re still identifying with Fleck/Joker by the end of this film, even if you didn’t know what this movie was about going in, you didn’t need a movie to be radicalized – you’re already there.
Note: The Joaquin Phoenix performance in Joker should be enough to get you to buy a ticket to the film, along with the thousands that have already done so. But if you want a similarly-outstanding Phoenix performance without any of the baggage that the violence controversy, the DC Comics license, or Todd Phillips’ dumb rants about skeletons, has brought upon Joker, I’d suggest Lynne Ramsay’s outstanding and criminally-underseen You Were Never Really Here, from 2017. It deserves your eyes.
Joker is currently playing all over the place and you don’t need my help to find a screening. You Were Never Really Here is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.