Divorcing Joker from the media storm that has enveloped it since its release is difficult. The film has received both rave reviews and scathing criticism. It has raised questions as to whether it will inspire a wave of violence and anarchy with its uncompromising bleak tone and willingness to look at the horrors of one man’s transformation into a monster. But putting all of that aside, at least for this review here and now, Joker is a good film. It isn’t exceptional, it isn’t as important or deep as it thinks it is, but it does linger in the mind long after the credits roll and will entertain, or just as likely disturb its audiences.
At the centre of the film is Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a troubled clown living in an equally troubled Gotham city. Surrounded by poverty, inequality and violence, Fleck tries to put on a smile and become a professional comedian even while he is figuratively and literally beaten down by a failing system. Phoenix is easily the film’s greatest asset. His performance is chilling and its strength not only comes from his acting but also his physicality. His body is skeletal, grotesque at times and his movements are just as effective as his harrowing laugh at conveying what’s going on behind his eyes. The film stays with Fleck for almost the entire run-time and whenever its priority is on his descent into narcissistic madness it works extremely well.
Phoenix is easily the film’s greatest asset
Where the film fails is when it tries to be profound without having anything original to say. Its politics are far from subtle and it covers territory which bleak films of a similar ire have been saying for decades but with less success. Its message: that the system is broken and leaves people behind, that violence is the only solution to incite change, that nobody really listens to the tortured artist, which all makes it feel at times more like a revolutionary musical a la Rent than a villain’s origin story, albeit one which substitutes song numbers for episodes of graphic violence.
The violence itself is visceral without being gratuitous and as much of the press surrounding Joker has been about how shocking it is, the film isn’t a bloodbath. The killings work because they’re built up to and dwelled upon afterwards, with one exception which feels like it was inserted for fan-service towards the end of the run-time.
The violence’s impact is also heightened by the film’s oppressive atmosphere. Gotham has a claustrophobic, menacing feel which helps sell the growing madness of the main character. For the sake of Batman fans, it does drop into a few key locations, Arkham Asylum and Wayne Manor, for instance, but these inclusions work to enhance the story rather than detract from it, unless you’re a purist in terms of how certain characters, Thomas Wayne in particular, should be depicted on screen. This is a very cynical take on the world of Batman, one which tries to understand how someone like the Joker could come to be. For some audiences this will not sit well, and for others it will be welcome relief from similar attempts to depict or even darken the world of Gotham city.
This is a very cynical take on the world of Batman, one which tries to understand how someone like the Joker could come to be
There are times when Joker looked to be going downhill, a couple of plot threads in particular could easily have sunk this film. Thankfully, the film avoids a number of traps and while it is uncomfortable to watch, it is memorable and will have audiences debating its presentation of its themes for a long time to come. Arthur Fleck as a character isn’t one to sympathise with, you understand why he does what he does but the film doesn’t invite you to join him, because ultimately no one wants to be the Joker the film has created. You may be shocked and in awe of this film, or you may be bored and utterly despise it. I can imagine people walking out feeling either way, but it will linger, uncomfortably in the back of the mind, like a certain laugh as the world sets itself on fire.
Read our trailer review of ‘Joker’ from earlier in the year.