At the time of writing, the discourse around Todd Phillips’s “Joker” has been raging on for weeks and weeks, with no end in sight. I have been thinking about the film for over a week, trying to pinpoint what made me dislike it so much. Several critics have awarded it full marks, five stars and called it the film of the year. I trust these critics and their opinions, but I fail to see the qualities of a masterpiece within the muddled politics of “Joker.”
The film opens with a devastated Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) painting his face, attempting a smile but having to resort to physically pulling his mouth into a gruesome grimace while a single tear rolls down his cheek. Arthur is a man that society has abandoned, who people actively choose not to see — to ignore and to forget. Arthur is the punchline to every joke, unfortunate from birth and all the more tragic for suffering from an injury that leads him to laugh uncontrollably when under stress. The film also stars Robert DeNiro as Murray Franklin, Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond and Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck.
Arthur will eventually become Joker, Gotham City’s most notorious super villain, one who breeds chaos and breathes anarchy. But how does one go from an unfortunate man, a sad human, to a murderous clown prince of crime? Todd Phillips is dying to answer this and map the route from point A to point B, but unfortunately gets lost in the way. There is a good film — a great film — in here somewhere, but unfortunately Phillips hasn’t been the right person to draw it out.
The biggest issue “Joker” has is its depiction of mental health. Once again, Hollywood is drawing a parallel between mental health problems and violence. And not just violence, but cruelty. Arthur becomes more and more sadistic in his actions, more and more unhinged, but the framing of the story makes some crucial mistakes that the film can’t recover from. We’re asked to understand and to empathize with Arthur, to see where he’s coming from when he executes people.
The film has a lot to say about the world we live in, how individuals fall through the cracks. Some of it is powerful and correct, and it’s a noble purpose, but the film simply doesn’t pull it off in a satisfying manner. A villain can be at least equally, if not more interesting, than a hero, and Joker is surely one of the most fascinating baddies of pop culture. But this is a story that makes a point about being timely and relevant. It may not incite violence or be as edgy as it clearly wants to be, but it never condemns Joker’s actions. He is celebrated; he is provided context and history. The end result should have been more tragic and thought-provoking, but it only ends up being problematic.
If Phillips handled the script with more nuance, “Joker” would be a much better film. There’s so much good here, but these qualities are drowned out by the bad stuff. All the female characters in the film are weak, flawed and somehow to blame for Arthur’s decline and Joker’s rise. It’s an unnecessarily cruel film that presents violence as an outlet, as something that’ll free you and give you power. By committing violent acts and shedding blood, Arthur is able to gain power, momentum and finally do something for himself. He becomes more outspoken, more comfortable in his own skin, by pulling the trigger to right some wrongs in his life. It’s a troubling thing to witness and the film does nothing to make Joker a warning or an example.
Whether or not you’re willing to believe that “Joker,” as a film (or any film for that matter), is problematic or dangerous is subjective and up for discussion. It’s a matter well worth discussing; should we worry about films like “Joker”? Or any film with violence? Or video games? It’s not so much the fear of violence that makes me worried about the movie’s impact, but the fact that Phillips is so willing to infuse the character with so many familiar and troublesome qualities, and then presents Arthur with no other choice but the destructive path he goes down, as if he could never be helped. He victimizes Arthur, who then turns to violence as the answer, but Phillips yet again victimizes him, implying Arthur had no choice; he had been forced by the society we live in to become the monster he is. The ending of “Joker” is tragic, but in all the wrong ways.
The film rides on Joaquin Phoenix’s remarkable performance. He embodies Arthur with such gusto and terrifying ease that the line between Phoenix and Arthur almost completely disappears. The scenes where Arthur dances expressively, completely free of the shackles that bind him, are the film’s highlight and, in all honesty, I would have loved to see more of them. It’s Phoenix’s commitment that saves “Joker” from being completely rotten.
In the end, “Joker” might be the most divisive film of 2019. It’s not the best the film industry has to offer — we should have already moved past these archaic stereotypes Phillips holds on to so tightly. It’s a disappointing film only because it could have been so much better. Hopefully, this villain will one day see a better adaptation hit the silver screen.
“Joker” is now playing in theaters. We’d love to hear what you thought about the film. Share your thoughts in the comments or @ us on social media!
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Featured image credit: Warner Bros.