Joaquin Phoenix's 'Joker' Won't Shut Up, but It Has Nothing to Say
This story contains mild spoilers for Joker.
The buzziest screening at TIFF this year was not the Ansel Elgort-starring The Goldfinch, an adaptation of the bestselling novel your mom's book club loves; nor was it Ford v Ferrari, the flashy car-racing movie with two of the country's biggest movie stars; nor was it a Star Wars director's murder mystery caper. It was an adaptation of a comic book villain's origin story, the superpowers and myth peeled away to leave only the nasty, hateful pit of DC Comics' most mysterious bad guy -- a villain whose narrative past has always been subjective at best.
The Joker traditionally has no single origin, as Heath Ledger implies in The Dark Knight by altering the story of his face scars for different people. According to some versions, the Joker is a failed clown who just has a thing for greasepaint; to others, a vat of acid leached the color from his skin and the sanity from his mind. As recently as 2017, the White Knight arc gave him the alias Jack Napier, a callback to the 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie. We've seen Bruce Wayne's parents die so many times we could recount it in our sleep, but the Joker's whole sinister "thing" remains open to interpretation. Todd Phillips' origin movie attempts to correct this, but instead of a lean, gritty (ugh) character reboot, we're left with an irresponsible thought experiment and a sour taste in our mouths.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), whose name may or may not be a subtle dig at former Batman Ben Affleck, is a sad-sack clown for hire, spinning signs and visiting children's hospitals when he's not caring for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), who's bedridden and obsessed with future mayor Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). He makes regular visits to a social worker who prescribes him a buffet of medications for unspecified mental ailments, telling her about all his many, many dark thoughts. "Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?" he asks her. At night, he tunes in to a late night talk show hosted by his favorite comedian Murray Franklin, who, in an homage to the 1983 film The King of Comedy, is played by Robert De Niro. Fleck is obsessed with Franklin, inventing conversations between them in his head, practicing what he'd say if he were ever invited to do standup on his show.
Amid the ramblings about society's downfall and his own dark thoughts, Fleck writes jokes in the ratty journal allotted to him by social services. He has dreams of becoming a famous comedian and making people laugh, despite his uncontrollable nervous laughing condition and the fact that nothing he can come up with is all that funny. He meets a young woman who lives in his dingy apartment complex (Zazie Beetz, unfortunately for her) and develops a crush. After he's mugged at work by a gang of boys and beaten up in an alley, one of his clown colleagues gifts him a gun to protect himself, which he later uses in an act of violence when another group of young men bully him on a train.
Fleck finally snaps when he can no longer control his anger, and, naturally, feels much better after he commits his heinous crime against people he feels deserve it, but there's barely any sense that he actually did anything wrong. The movie is told from his point of view, sure, but there's plenty of space in this script for the film to pull back and examine his behavior, what it means, and why it makes him go off the deep end. He himself blames his actions on his "mental illness," but that falls flat given how little substance surrounds the rest of the film.
There could be a place for a movie like this -- not this movie, but a movie LIKE it -- if it actually had anything of use to say. Unfortunately, there's nothing really THAT edgy about the whole thing. I'm reminded of the scandal-that-wasn't when Lars Von Trier's similarly polarizing The House That Jack Built premiered at Cannes in 2018 and, the story goes, nearly half the audience walked out before it was over. The buzz was inescapable, and the rest of us walked into our screening the next morning only to leave disturbed, disappointed, and mildly perplexed by what we'd just seen. Like House, Joker really isn't THAT bad. There's violence, fear, and endless proselytizing about depressive episodes and the infinite capacity for men to give reasons for their violent tendencies, but all that is is boring.
It wouldn't be a BAD movie... if it weren't such a bad movie. Phillips is undeniably a talented director, aesthetically, lending the back alleys of Gotham appropriate layers of grime and peeling paint and dusty storefronts, framing Phoenix’s laughing rictus in manic close-ups. Phoenix is also good, when he’s not just sitting in a chair laughing, which he does a lot. You do pity him, at first, when it becomes clear that the whole world really has abandoned him.
And that’s exactly why Joker doesn’t -- and can’t -- work.
What's frightening about Joker is it's impossible to tell whose side we're supposed to be on. I suppose that's one of the many definitions of compelling art, but it's also cowardly. The official summary of the movie describes it as a "cautionary tale," but it's unclear what that refers to. A cautionary tale about mental illness? About not ignoring those who feel beat down by society? About not handing guns to people with laughing disorders? But it's undeniable, at its climax, when he is at his most despicable, that Joker does look kinda cool, or at least is framed that way. What are we supposed to do with that?
There's so much about Joker that's downright nasty, and not in an entertaining way: The fact that the movie speaks, intentionally or not, to incels, those who believe in the oppression of women and minorities and in taking whatever they want with physical force. The fact that, just seven years ago, a man dyed his hair and shot up a movie theater during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. And that's saying nothing of the mental illness angle, which Fleck uses, multiple times, as an excuse for his behavior.
In a way, the Joker is right: He's been abandoned by everyone, and the only way he can get attention is through violence. If the world had just been nicer to him, the film seems to say, if only he'd gotten the right help, if only he hadn't been mentally ill, if only the woman he loves (read: stalks) had loved him back, things might have gone differently. Yet it also conspicuously ignores the narcissistic conviction that defines this kind of person; that the world doesn't care about them, and that it's up to them to make it care. When Gotham finally goes up in flames, descending into the chaos we all know it must, it's Joker the film zooms in on, Joker it cares about. It's a complete power fantasy (and, due to the ambiguous ending, could literally be one).
Should we pity these people? The best villain narratives usually are quite sympathetic: Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader because of heartbreak and what he saw as betrayal. Daenerys Targaryen watched the only friends she'd ever had executed one by one at the hands of those she hated most. But Anakin also killed a roomful of schoolchildren; Daenerys crucified people as a political statement. There's nothing in Joker to remind us that what he thinks is wrong. The movie isn't badly made or even ugly to look at, but there's a mean, smug little heart at the center of it that, at best, irresponsibly frames a familiar male power fantasy as a revolutionary act. And that's not funny at all.