Director: Todd Phillips
Writer: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Genre: Psychological Thriller
“Deconstruction” is a practice in modern filmmaking (and reviewing) with which I’ve grown morbidly disenchanted. The practice ostensibly is to aim us at a fuller understanding of many of the tropes, archetypes, and commonly shared motifs of narrative and existential experience that we tend to instinctively recognize. What it has become in practice is a form of either intellectual self-titillation or self-flagellation of the same sort, depending on how the ego is playing out at the time. Little care or concern for what greater insight could be gleaned from piecing apart the fundamentals of our shared narrative architecture comes through in many of these “deconstruction pieces.” It more seems like an exhibition in showing us how easily our most essential and valued understandings of ourselves, our experiences, and the world we necessarily inhabit can be dashed by those uncaring enough to do so.
Stuff and nonsense! Any fool can break eggs. Most fools do by accident. It takes someone with real heart, sense, and purpose to take the egg apart without making a mess of things. It takes skill to make something even more valuable out of the egg once it is taken apart. It’s for all these reasons that I both gravely bemoan what “deconstruction” has become and why I think that a strong return to form is in serious order.
With Joker, arguably the most hotly-anticipated movie of the fall film release season, my prayer was that we would get something of a much-needed reprieve from the CGI-heavy fireworks display that is so typically associated with comic movie cinema, especially after Martin Scorsese’s recent splenetic screed came into the public discourse. I was also hopeful that we’d see a “deconstruction” of one of the most iconic and well-known embodiments of villainy given a proper and reverent treatment–one that would reflect rather than revel, inspire discourse rather than discord, and leave us hopeful rather than hate-filled. Of course, a good deal of that relies on us, doesn’t it?
Violence/Scary Images: Extremely graphic but infrequent killing, with blood spurts/spatters and dead bodies. Guns, shooting, people being shot. Stabbing in throat and eye with scissors. Kids smash a wooden sign in the main character’s face, stomping and kicking him when he’s down. Bullies beat up the main character, punching and kicking him. Brief strangling. Smothering with pillow. Character is hit by car. Fighting, rioting. Implied child abuse. Drunk men harass a woman on the subway.
Language/Crude Humor: Several uses of “f***” and its variants, “s***,” “bulls***,” “a**hole,” “pr**ks.” “Jesus” as an exclamation. Middle-finger gesture.
Sexual Content: Extremely brief images of (somewhat) graphic nudity in the flipped-through pages of a journal. Signs for porno theaters with suggestive titles and pictures. Main character seen with hand down underwear (suggested masturbation). Kissing. Character bathes in a tub (nothing graphic shown).
Drug/Alcohol Use: Frequent cigarette smoking. Main character takes prescription pills. The Joker’s first victims are drunk and abusive.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Debilitating mental illness is a pervasive theme.
Positive Content: Peripheral condemnation of the rich and powerful who do nothing to help the downtrodden get on their feet; if not for their selfishness, a monster like the Joker could have been avoided. Connections suggested between mental illness and criminal acts/behavior, which is troubling.
“You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan’ –even if the plan is horrifying.”
I’ve been seeing a large number of comedians bemoaning the “death of comedy” recently. Oftentimes, it is the hypersensitivity of the easily offended public that is taken to task for this demise. Dave Chappelle famously (or perhaps “infamously” depending on your angle) called out his own audience for the crime in his recent “Sticks and Stones” special, and has faced no shortage of backlash for it. While I can certainly charge the floating hostility towards any attitude that could serve to undermine or even sully what the modern political left regards as sacred catechisms as instrumental in comedy being severely wounded, I find that this may not be the only culprit in its murder.
Todd Phillip’s Joker explores a host of difficult and remarkably timely subjects, among them is how the position of a comic should be situated in a state of both internal and external despair. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) has a living arrangement that can be politely regarded as “humble.” He and his frail single mother Penny (Frances Conroy) live modestly in the slums of 1981 Gotham City while impoverishment and unemployment are rampant. Arthur himself makes ends meet as a clown for hire with aspirations as a stand-up comedian. His outlook is at many times very admirable, feeling like what’s needed in such desperate days is a bit of levity, despite his having little to no reason to think of himself as any reliable source of it.
Arthur suffers from a severe case of pseudobulbar affect (PBA), a mental disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times of mental or emotional stress. For this and other issues concerning his mental health, he frequents a psychiatric social worker who encourages him to keep a journal and prescribes medication to hold his maladies at bay. Arthur fills his journal with numerous curiosities and observations peppered with bizarre clippings of pornographic imagery, interspersed with discordant ideas that seem like weak attempts at humor, and festooned with haunting statements of grave negativity reflecting the mind of one on the brink of suicide. The one entry that stood out to many both in the film and the trailers was:
“The worst part about having a mental illness is…people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
Unlike nearly all other comic book movies–even the good ones–Joker is not a work that is easily classified. Make no mistake, it wears its inspirational sources on its sleeves. A cheap remark on the film that I regularly come across in social media is “Taxi Driver but with makeup.” Yes, in setting, time period, mood, and other flourishes both in the cinematography and plot structure, Phillips pays clear tribute to not only Scorsese’s 1976 noir classic, but also to his later ’82 release The King of Comedy. With that established, what exactly Joker sets out to be with those muses in tow is a question that’s certain to take up a significant portion of the discourse that will follow its release for some time to come.
Firstly, it needs to be understood that this isn’t really a movie in which plot is the primary selling point. This is a character film first and foremost, in which the drama is almost entirely centered on Arthur’s development into the Clown Prince of Crime, and how that could be a believable direction. Well over 10 years ago, Christopher Nolan dared to ask what exactly could drive a wealthy business magnate to dress up like a giant nocturnal mammal to beat up criminals at night. Today, Phillips asks a similar, but even more difficult question.
In Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel, The Killing Joke, the idea of a singular easily digestible origin story for someone as chaotic and dangerously off-kilter as the Joker is ultimately treated as an exercise in futility. One of the character’s most-cited quotes originates there: “If I am to have a past, I’d rather it be multiple choice.” While it may strike as an incredibly basic and straightforward drama upon first viewing (and it largely is on at least one level), Joker does offer its meaning, plot, and structure as “multiple choice” in many ways.
Such “multiple choice” dilemmas can be drilled down to even some of the most repeated and trite gestures. Arthur’s compulsive laughter rings as a clarion call for his increasing mental and existential brokenness. It is widely agreed upon that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the greatest method actors working at the moment, and his full-scale embodiment of injury, numbness, and unbridled rage and psychopathy is one that cannot be ignored come next Oscar season without a profane injustice being committed. When laughter takes him over, whether it be on a bus in front of a flabbergasted mother or on a subway near drunken ne’er-do-wells who mean him harm, it’s hard to tell whether it is genuine laughter at the absurdity of his life, or a cry of despair over the same. Or both. He’s not even allowed the comfort of tears.
From Arthur’s perspective, it seems as though life aims only to put as much pressure on him just to see at what point he’ll finally snap. Every man has a breaking point, and for one already damaged, that point can be frightfully close. Even the glimmers of light in Arthur’s life seem to operate only as opportunities for bringing him up to the point from which his heart can be dropped. Arthur and his mother have a nightly custom of watching a talk show hosted by Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin, Arthur’s idol and inspiration for his budding career in comedy. On a particularly bleak day, Arthur develops an awkward but warm relationship with Sophie, a single mother and neighbor of his. While the two have much mental impairment between them, what Arthur and Penny have is as sincere and healthy as they can manage. These are but the mere threads of sanity that Arthur can hope for, and what stability they offer is immeasurable in their value. One motif that stood out to me is that at every stage of Arthur’s regression, he smokes with alarming frequency. It is the closest thing to normal human behavior he can achieve, and it’s entirely self-destructive.
To go any further down this rabbit hole in detail would do you a grave disservice, dear reader. Fortunately, there is enough even in the margins of Arthur’s trek to warrant further introspection. Unfortunately, it’s the type of introspection that I generally dread in my review work, though the film warrants it. Gotham is terribly unkind to one such as Arthur, and there is a point at which he decides impulsively that enough is enough. What is in its raw state an act of self-defense that ends in the death of three Wayne Enterprise employees quickly becomes a catalyst for class warfare when run through the ringer of the mainstream news media cycle.
Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) condemns the deaths as a disgraceful murder, denigrating the disadvantaged who would commit such violence against those more successful than they as “clowns.” The underprivileged of the city likewise begin to mount a series of riots and protests against those they take to be their oppressors in order to…actually it’s not too clear what they aim to do exactly. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.
Much consternation has arisen among reviewers and other media publications with the ways in which Joker handles its themes and content. Some have raised concern over the violence depicted–an odd criticism considering that Joker pales in comparison to any number of other R-rated comic flicks of late in that regard. Perhaps taking place in the context of a more serious-minded character drama rather than a live-action Tom & Jerry short like Deadpool made the violence more viscerally impactful despite being less graphic and far less frequent. Other detractors have claimed that the film would inspire mass shootings and increased violence in bitter and resentful young men with an inferiority complex. It’s largely due to this and other similarly braindead screeds that makes many, myself included, wonder if the most basic due diligence of actually seeing the movie was even performed prior to scribbling out these “Chicken Little”-style PSAs.
Joker as a character has never been one to take sides on much of anything. Likewise, Joker as a movie doesn’t either. At no point is any of the characters’ destructive actions glorified, justified, or treated as a motion towards progress by the film. Also, neither side in the class warfare that erupts in tandem with Arthur’s personal degradation is regarded as “heroic” in any manner. All the standard arbiters of justice in Gotham–Commissioner Gordan, pre-Two-Face Harvey Dent, and even Batman himself–are all absent nearly to the point of annihilation. All we are left with is two sides of the same blind nihilistic coin.
The underprivileged who vow to “kill the rich” after some unkind words from Thomas Wayne (who’s running for mayor) are made publicly have no intention of removing the currently corrupt system for the purpose of replacing it with a more balanced and equitable one. Their only goal is to express outrage, exact revenge by proxy, and sow discord, chaos, and malice in every way they can. Upon reflection, I have to say that in behavior, rhetoric, and even attire, the rioters bear more than a passing resemblance to Antifa…
In that same vein, the wealthy are never depicted as either virtuous nobility or as simply as accidental victims of circumstance. A transitional scene depicts many of Gotham’s wealthiest in a theater enjoying a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, in which the silent film legend makes light comedy out of the Depression Era working class. This is the greatest extent of understanding that Thomas Wayne and his ilk have of the impoverished masses beyond their gates: a silent joke.
Phillips and company make it abundantly clear that there are sinners at every income bracket, and none are beyond criticism for their actions because of their lot in life. The chaos and destruction that is born from a lack of care and understanding from all concerned parties clearly has some inspirational roots in the fateful storming of the Bastille that ignited the French Revolution, with all the cyclical atrocities that entailed and brought about in its wake.
As for the Joker himself, when he finally embraces the label of a hopeless clown that everyone, including his idol Murray Franklin, slaps upon him without a second thought, he is at a point where no other identity for him seems suitable anymore. Archetypally speaking, the Joker plays the role of the jester in the king’s court. The jester is often the only one capable of telling the truth because he is beneath contempt. Arthur Fleck eventually takes the first opportunity available to him to play that role in the most devastating way he knows, leaving everyone, including us viewers, reeling in horror at what leaving a man feeling as though he has nothing to lose can bring about.
A whole other article can be written just on the direction and technical work of Joker. I cannot recall another film being so timely and yet so out of time. The production values do incredible work in selling the idea of a slum in near ruins, with clever framing choices delivering a surreal aura of both detachment and immediacy in the same strokes. Nowhere does any bombastic CGI shenanigans interfere with what is pure and solid filmmaking of the most traditional sort. Both the needle-drop musical selections as well as the score provided by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir are finely tuned to give exquisite garnish to every critical story beat. The scenery is never wasted in offering symbolic accentuation to the character drama either. A stone staircase serves at one point for Arthur to make a solemn and arduous climb into the dreary bleakness that is his lot in life, and later is the platform upon which he literally and figuratively descends into madness, dancing all the way down, wearing the nightmare on his face with pride.
It will be a temptation to compare Phoenix’s performance with that of the late Heath Ledger from Nolan’s highly venerated 2008 film The Dark Knight. For your own sake, dear reader, let that only be a temptation. What Phoenix does here deserves to be assessed and appreciated on its own terms. The fact that Joker is produced and marketed as a standalone production, completely unrelated to the entries in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), should give some clue as to how it ought to be received.
The joker is the card without category–amorphous and wild, and Joker adequately and explicitly exhibits the existential crisis that being bereft of any sense of identity, purpose, or belonging can elicit. It’s also probably the best film that Todd Phillips could have made at this point in his career. After making a name for himself with the Hangover trilogy, Phillips has said publicly that he moved away from comedy after realizing how current social trends has made the practice too dangerous to be worthwhile. That is a concern that should alarm us all. When the court jester has been executed or exiled, we can be safe in assuming that the wicked king has taken the throne.
I honestly do not think that a film like Joker could have come at a better time. Whereas so many other offerings in comic book filmmaking can be easily identified and fully enjoyed in one sitting, this is one that begs us to come back for more over multiple viewings, defying conventional methods of classification and bringing new insights to light with every subsequent meeting. I honestly debated holding off on this review until I had the chance to see it again. I most certainly will take the opportunity to do so, and heaven help those foolish enough to feel content in their grasp of this movie on the first viewing alone. Chaos only bewilders on first contact. It is through repeated, careful, and intentional acts of resolution that it can be brought to order.
The Bottom Line