Todd Phillips, the man behind comedies such as The Hangover trilogy, Borat, and Starsky & Hutch, has created one of the most highly, and nervously, anticipated movies of 2019, Joker. From thematic content bound to arise divisive discourse, and a filmmaker who couldn’t resist interjecting amidst the bad press, Joker is arguably the most controversial release of the year so far. The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) through his experiences in Gotham City, and their eventual kindling of an origin story for one of the most beloved villains in comic book history.
Arthur Fleck is a man unseen. As Gotham City is cloaked in the shadows created by the towering force of societal disarray, he searches for his place in the light. He stumbles through the hindrances of society, mental illness, desire, and ambition, ultimately resulting in the awakening of peak sociopathy as he fully descends into his state as the Joker. With a thoroughly tangible character at its center and a muddled jumble of a supporting narrative, the efficacy of Joker is as divided as the audiences who have seen it.
Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker is not only the central character but essentially the whole story as well. He carries this film. His incredible performance is emotionally potent, vulnerable, maniacal, and wholly realized. Though the credit for his rendering of Joker cannot be strictly reserved to him, as it is evident that on paper as well, the character has been extensively and carefully written. Joker, as a personality, is the absolute best aspect of this film. We witness a man on the fringe, desperately clutching for any connection he can manage to grasp in a society he is disregarded by. His disposition is most frequently childlike, and we can see there is a palpable trauma behind his eyes. Even his signature cackle is an affliction, making the times in which it is actually genuine all the more horrifying. His slip into derangement is gradual until it feels like we are thrust into a climax of madness we cannot return from. However, to Arthur, he welcomes this decline eagerly, claiming it as his long-awaited grip over control in his own story.
The Joker’s atmosphere provides an enthralling backdrop for Gotham City’s further fall from grace. The setting is deep, dingy, and shadowy, which is then contrasted by its spellbinding illumination of vibrant jewel tones. Gotham feels pervasively inset within an urban landscape, as if it’s a city that has truly been pushed into the ground, becoming a putrid crater within its larger world. This aura is supported by an absolutely mesmeric score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, that encloses the viewer in the Joker and locks their gaze exclusively on the screen before them. The score, along with the soundtrack, latches onto Joker’s mental state. Sometimes it allows for a breath among the pandemonium, but often it serves as a sinister tracklist of his insanity, as he dances to it, moving along to the rhythm of his own chaos like it’s his own personal, haunting concerto.
Joker is a film with good bones: it has a strong foundation to build its story, but all the marrow in between is scrambled and surface. Where the character and atmosphere excel, the surrounding story and underlying intention are left vague. Mental health, class, race, media, and a few lines of dialogue seemingly included to toss in disdain for “woke culture” and oversensitivity, comprise the statement this film aims to make. Joker introduces a menagerie of themes without seeming to have thought out a single one to its full potential, making each one feel lazily included and devoid of any true analysis or depth of thought. As opposed to a dip into a wide breadth of themes, this film would have benefitted from deep dive into a few. The Joker strongly addresses mental health’s presence, its debilitating quality, and the lack of accessibility of help for those that need it. It opens a conversation to be had, but the clarity of what exactly it’s trying to say hangs in the balance. It yearns to make a statement, but it is a bit irresponsible, and not deliberate enough to do so.
Some of the plot points underestimate the intelligence of the audience, overexplaining themselves to make sure viewers understand the events that have taken place, even when they’re abundantly clear. Throughout the film, there are a few moments where we are reminded that this psychological thriller about an unhinged madman was created by the same person who made The Hangover films. Sporadic bouts of immature comedic inclusion are clearly meant to break up the tension, but they’re overzealous and interrupt the flow of the movie. We’re reminded of a juvenile sense of humor, one that has its place, just not in this film.
Joker has been vilified for its portrayal of violence and the culture that sparks it. The brutality depicted in this film is not encouraged or celebratory. The Joker stands for something, and he is encouraged, upheld, and supported, but only by those we know are misguided in their execution. His plight may be sympathetic, and his desire for change seen as justifiable, but his methods are explicitly deplorable. He is an extremist, and a terrorist, and we aren’t deterred from this fact.
The inclusion of a plethora of shallowly implemented themes takes away from the sincerity of Joker, and leave a hollow space in its motive, where any accusation can be made. The chronicle of Arthur Fleck and his mental deterioration into the Joker, however, is fantastically compelling. The expectation of creating an origin story for a villain with such an extensive cultural history is for it to be thorough in its characterization, fearfully provoking, and disturbing. Joker is a film that overexplains its plot and underrepresents what we can only assume its intention to be, but it provides a wretched, revolting, and terrifying villain at its core, leaving the audience irrefutably clinched within the clutches of Arthur Fleck.