Film Review: In “Joker”, the clown is feelin’ down
I spent at least a day pondering on Joker before typing a word of this review. I left the theatre aware I watched something remarkably affecting. Something about it disturbed me, though. It certainly wasn’t the violence, as it’s really not much more graphic than your average superhero show. It was perhaps that it was hard to know how to feel about the plot, which so relentlessly pushes the unfortunate Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) past the point of no return that, his nihilism when he embraces his Joker identity was not only understandable, but cathartic and cool. It was hard to tell whether the story was empty, or whether it just made me feel empty.
It was probably a kind of emotional exhaustion, as I’m still thinking about the film days later. It’s a simple story of a sad sack named Arthur Fleck who’s thoroughly boiled in humanity’s – or rather, Gotham City’s – collective bile. He starts off with very little: A miserable job as a clown for hire, a disinterested therapist, a sickly mother, delusions of fame as a stand-up comedian. But then the plot systematically robs him of those meagre things in a variety of humiliating and devastating ways. He stumbles into becoming a figurehead for a growing “Kill the rich” mood in a poverty-stricken Gotham City. Of course, the dark joke is that he is not mentally equipped to feel for anyone but himself, and he believes in nothing. And yet, when he unleashes a riot by the hellish climax and his acolytes lift him up, Christ-like and all, I felt relief instead of the expected repulsion.
Of course it’s just a movie, but what that reaction says about me isn’t very flattering. However, that’s what we like about provocative art. You can explore these complicated feelings in a safe context.
I suppose a big part of the discomfort is that Joaquin Phoenix engenders a tremendous amount of sympathy with a sensitive and transformative performance. When he goes full Joker, and pathetically strains to inhabit this flamboyant showman persona as if that will keep him from collapsing into crippling sobs, the romance of the infamous Batman villain falls away entirely. What’s left is an ugly, pitiful, and real, human being. Phoenix is completely convincing as this fundamentally absurd and cartoonish character. His emaciated form makes his emotional starvation tangible. I can’t recall a portrait of human desperation that was this vivid. Be warned that, if you’re like me, and are susceptible to second-hand embarrassment, this movie is often a mortifying nightmare.
But this isn’t just a case of an outstanding performance bolstering a standard psychological thriller. Director Todd Philips came to play too. His vision is appallingly realistic: “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy” are much touted influences. Not that “Joker” holds a candle to those masterpieces, but it wears those influences handsomely, and it never feels like a bastardization. It doesn’t play like a mainstream comic book movie made in 2019 – there’s nary an action scene to be found here. Certainly, its inarticulate rage at a failed American capitalist system feels contemporary.
In Joker, you can definitely trace a direct line from this failed system to the birth of the Joker. “We live in a society” and all that. I wish the movie delved more into its themes of class warfare and economic disparity. If Joker has a major flaw, it’s that its above-the-fray ambiguity regarding these heavy themes almost abandons the movie in a pit of thoughtless nihilism. But I would be doing this work a major disservice if I didn’t mention the score by Hildur Gudnadottir, which adds a graceful layer of etherealness to an atmosphere as thick and toxic as Gotham’s garbage. I don’t think the movie is nearly as powerful without this aspect.
The elements really came together for this unique one-off. Its thematic through-line is somewhat muddled and there are flashes of unnecessary obviousness, but this artsy and impactful character study of a hugely popular and appealing character is something worth seeing and talking about after.