AT THE MOVIES
“Joker” Paints a Perfectly Unsettling Portrait of Today
BY NOAH GITTELL
Arthur Fleck is a disturbed and lonely man. It’s the late 1970s, and Arthur lives with his mother in a dingy New York — I mean, Gotham City — apartment. Outside, the city is crumbling, with low city budgets leading to scrapped social services and an increase in crime. Inside Arthur’s head, it’s not much better. Suffering from severe mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder, all that keeps him going is his work. He’s a clown for hire, but he only gets the worst jobs, like spinning a “Going out of Business” sign outside a music store. He doesn’t have much of a social life either, as he is hampered by a strange condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, and irritatingly, when he’s nervous.
Did I mention he’s a Batman villain? Over the course of “Joker”, Todd Phillips’s bold but uneven reimagining of the superhero genre, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) will become the Joker, but for most of the film, he is just a screwed-up guy trying to get by in a world that looks disturbingly like our own. This initial masterstroke of the film – to make a comic book movie with hardly any genre elements – carries it through its weaker spots. On the heels of “Avengers: Endgame”, the most successful superhero film of all time, “Joker” is both indicator and perpetrator of a major change in the movie business as usual.
There is no better character to usher in that change. Historically, the Joker has been an agent of chaos. In “The Dark Knight”, Heath Ledger played him as a man without a past, which made his inexplicable brutality all the more terrifying. Phillips takes a different tack. In “Joker”, he painstakingly explains the character’s psychosis as a product of child abuse, mental illness, a negligent health care system, the shaming effect of social media, celebrity culture, and, of course, romantic rejection.
In the opening scene, Arthur is attacked by some teenage thugs. His friend gives him a gun to protect himself, but Arthur accidentally exposes it while working at a children’s hospital. He gets fired. Later, he shoots three Wall Street types in self-defense, and discovers the thrill of violence. Sprinkle in some daddy issues and an obsession with fame, and you’ve got a recipe for one supervillain.
As a work of drama, this scattershot approach to character leaves much to be desired. The filmmakers have a lot of ideas about what makes a murderer, but they might have been better off choosing one or two. In turning Fleck into a victim with a million perpetrators, they create a character with no agency, and actually, no personality. For most of the film, we’re just waiting for him to transform into something else — anything — and the first hour drags badly as a result.
Despite its predictable plot, Phoenix does a masterful job of creating unpredictable moments. “Joker” is littered with physical gags from Fleck that we’re never quite sure are intentional, like when he walks into a glass door after being questioned by the police. It’s a neat trick: Phoenix remains completely compelling without ever quite letting us inside his head. His physical presence is a key component. Having lost significant weight for the role, his bones jut out from his body, ready to burst through the surface. With little musculature, he seems to be held up by an invisible string, like some demonic marionette.
When the strings are cut and Joker is finally manifested, it’s downright thrilling. We learn that Fleck’s violence — including another, more public shooting — has turned him into a symbol for a growing movement of anarchy. In the crime-ridden streets of Gotham, people are angry, and a violent clown taking revenge on the rich and powerful is an apt metaphor for their pain. It’s the film’s metaphor, too, which explains the hand-wringing that has occurred over the film’s potential impact. “Joker” exposes the dark corners of our world – and maybe ourselves — and imagines a future in which our rage boils over into a violent, aimless revolution. Many have wondered: Will people in the theater follow suit?
If they do, it won’t be the fault of “Joker”, which doesn’t advocate for violence but merely holds a funhouse mirror up to society and withholds from us a hero. Batman will exist in this cinematic world at some point – his presence is hinted at – but he’s not there now, and there is no heroism to provide a counterpoint to the Joker’s anarchic urges. It makes for an imperfect but perfectly unsettling film that gains power with its context. After all, comic book movies are the dominant cultural force in America. If this is where they are headed, what does it say about us?
My Rating: See it in the Theater