Todd Phillips's take on Batman's arch enemy is told through emotional pornography, with the director acting as a freakshow impresario inviting us to “come and see The Amazing Schiz-O-Phrenic!”
For the cultural commentariat in the year 2019, it seems, one does not simply not engage with Joker discourse. And so Todd Phillips’s Joker arrives on our screens somewhat anticlimactically after months of online wars between snobby nerds going out of their way to mock the film’s wannabe-outré marketing campaign and blockbuster nerds apoplectically defending their beloved property before having seen the movie. Then there are the thinkpieces; whether the film will be a cultural landmark reframing comic book mythology along the lines of The Dark Knight, or a rallying cry for lonely and demented incels along the lines of a twisted subreddit.
Set in a 1981 Gotham full of grimy, vertiginous shots invoking the epic gloom of the likes of Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City, and starring Joaquin Phoenix – one of our most intense and talented screen stars – this origin story for the famed Batman villain is certainly straining for a flirtation with real-world despondency. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is posited as the result of a profoundly sick society. He's a victim of childhood abuse who develops an involuntary pathological laugh, whose medication and therapy are defunded thanks to uncaring bureaucracy. He dreams of being a standup comedian and hallucinates grand fantasies, but finds himself constantly bullied and snaps into violence firstly as self-defence and then to punish those who mocked him.
It’s not the first Joker origin story – most notably, there was Alan Moore’s one-shot comic The Killing Joke, which also pitched Joker as a failed standup comedian. But it is something of a break from previous iterations of the character in presenting him as a weak and piteous fool who knows not what he wreaks, rather than a superintelligent agent of nihilistic chaos.
The movie’s attempt to depict psychosis with realism, combined with its sense of expectant, hushed-awe, event-movie gravitas, unfortunately results in something unseemly: Fleck’s collection of plausible mental illnesses becomes contextualised as a series of astounding, behind-the-curtain revelations that will inevitably result in unique criminal insanity, as if Phillips is a freakshow carnival barker inviting us to “come and see The Amazing Schiz-O-Phrenic!”
There are brilliant films that pull off the balancing act between sympathising with a killer’s vulnerability and overdramatising their villainy, not least William Lustig’s Maniac, also set in the garbage pail wasteland of early 1980s NYC. There are good films that show the unpicking of a man’s psyche just as deliberately as Joker, like the Sean Penn vehicle The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Taxi Driver showed us the point of view of a loner about to snap, and The King of Comedy gave us darkly comedic commentary about a man driven delusional by the gulf between his lowly station and dreams of celebrity. Joker invokes both of these Martin Scorsese films by casting Robert De Niro in a small role, but this film is considerably more muddled.
As Fleck unwittingly inspires a mass movement of clown-faced men determined to overthrow the system at large, it’s unclear whether the film is implying that his pathology is an everyman epidemic, whether it’s trafficking in iffy class politics by suggesting protestors against inequality are embittered nutcases, or whether it’s all a mess out there and everyone is seizing upon their own brand of crazy in a dysfunctional world. For all its well-mounted atmosphere and technical skill, Joker ultimately explains an iconic character through emotional pornography, and the sum of its glib philosophy seems to be that there’s a lot of dark stuff out there and that should really make you think.
Released by Warner Bros