Joker is a frustratingly enigmatic movie, to the point where I’m having an incredibly difficult time deciding what exactly I think of it. It is, undoubtedly, a well-made film, by all technical standards. It’s brilliantly acted, has beautiful cinematography, stunning camerawork, and an incredible score. It has a methodical, captivating story, with complex, grounded characters. Based solely on the sum of its parts, Joker is a damn-near perfect film. Yet, my initial reaction to the film was not to praise it, but to question it. There’s something terribly off about it, something which is proving to be difficult to put into words. But regardless, I can’t stop thinking about it.
Make no mistake: This is not a popcorn flick. This isn’t something you can just catch a matinee of and be entertained by for two hours, and then go on with your life. This movie is haunting. It’s disturbing, it’s awkward, it’s gruesome, it’s so many things that will stick in your mind well after the credits roll to the tune of “Send in the Clowns.” Despite the title character’s ubiquitous prevalence in modern, easily digestible pop-culture, Joker is not the sort of thing that lends itself to colorful merchandise and children’s Halloween costumes. This is a dark, mature film, the likes of which I have never encountered before, at least where comic book adaptions are concerned. It’s not a film where there’s a hero to root for, nor is there a villain to overcome. This is a film about society’s ills (imagined or otherwise), which, for better or for worse, does not shy away from any facet of the messages that it feels it has to deliver.
Most of the pre-release press for the film stressed that it was inspired by the early works of Martin Scorsese, which, frankly, is a bit of an understatement. As many others have already said, Joker pulls much of its thematic and visual material directly from Scorsese’s canon. The influences of Taxi Driver are ever-present in the film’s Travis Bickle-esque, unpredictably unstable protagonist, and the film’s plot borrows heavily from The King of Comedy, with Robert DeNiro even appearing playing a sort of mirror opposite to his character in the seminal classic. The film wears its influences on its sleeve, yet does not feel like a cheap knock-off. While direct allusions and homages are abundant, Joker feels much more spiritually and ideologically connected to Scorsese’s films, rather than narratively. It plays with the divides between economic class and social status through the lenses of counter-culture and crime, which are more or less the trademarks of some of the director’s more beloved films, up to and including more modern works like The Gangs of New York. But while Scorsese often dips into taboo, uncomfortable subject matter, his protagonists are nowhere near as unhinged and broken as Joker’s title figure, known before his transformation as the unassuming and meek Arthur Fleck.
Joaquin Phoenix brings a quiet, still menace to the character, even in his early, embryonic stages before he becomes a full-fledged psychopath. This ‘is in stark contrast to the Joker as he is usually portrayed, as a loud, flamboyant, attention-seeking diva, which gives the film a much more somber and introspective tone. That isn’t to say that Phoenix doesn’t eventually begin to morph into a more familiar incarnation of the character, but for most of the film’s runtime, he plays the role in a much more nuanced manner. This isn’t a Joker who is manic or gleefully sadistic. Rather, he is a tortured, mentally unstable individual, who has genuine medical and psychological reasons for his many quirks and ticks, most notably of which is his uncontrollable nervous laughter. There’s a raw, authentic pain to each one of these episodes that makes Phoenix disappear into the role completely. This is a man who is in agony, and you don’t doubt it for a single second.
If l had to compare it to anything, it would be Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of the sociopathic Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy’s criminally underrated Nightcrawler. Both characters are unhinged, tragic figures, whom the audience can never quite get a solid read on. How do their brains work? Are they evil? Or do they just not understand social cues and human interaction, due to a mental disorder? Phoenix’s Fleck constantly walks the line between benignly misunderstood and malevolently sadistic. In his facial expressions and his eyes, we see his character constantly attempting to process and analyze the people around him, as if observing a foreign species. There are times when this is played for pity, showing a pronounced loneliness in his inability to form meaningful human relationships. Other times, it’s presented as much more sinister, accenting the comic version’s twisted and misanthropic worldview.
However, what makes Phoenix’s Joker unique and distinct from the many incarnations to have come before it is the complex and often contradictory way his many contrasting mental states present themselves to the audience. With Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Tim Burton’s Batman, we’re given a self-aware, maniacal gangster, who revels in his own evil even before his skin is bleached white. With Heath Ledger’s version in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker is a politically disruptive force of instability, a self-described “agent of chaos.” Neither of these characters ever deviate from their established character traits. As captivating as they are, they’re fairly static characters. With Joker‘s portrayal of the figure, the audience is given no such certainty. We are, at times, meant to believe that he is a sympathetic character, that he is the victim of a lifetime of abuse and neglect, and that his behavior is beyond his control. And yet later, he becomes a figure to be feared, to be reviled, and to be judged.
When the character reaches this point in his journey, the film becomes an increasingly uneasy experience to sit through. Much like its portrayal of Fleck’s worsening mental illness, Joker does not attempt to soften its depiction of violence with an overly exaggerated or cinematic lens. No, the violence in this film is absolutely brutal. It’s sickeningly visceral, bloody, and sometimes far too realistic. Each time Fleck takes a life, it’s a profound, consequential experience that is in no way trivialized. Violence in this film carries a real weight that one perhaps wouldn’t expect from a film like this. I could not reasonably count how many horror films I’ve seen in my life, but I promise that there are few that have made me squirm as much as Joker did.
This leads me to what I’m having the hardest time reconciling with in this film. The Joker is meant to be, in his purest form, an avatar of chaos. He exists as the polar, ideological Opposite of Batman’s commitment to law, order, and justice. There’s no logic to his actions, no greater goals in mind. He exists solely for his own amusement. To paraphrase Ledger’s infamous portrayal, the Joker just does things. So by that thread of narrative logic alone, violence in Joker is certainly par for the course. However, what derails this relatively simplistic and traditionalist paradigm is the film’s choice to make Arthur Fleck and his eventual, murderous clown alter-ego a folk hero of sorts. We are, for the first time, given motive for why this character behaves the way he does.
The version of Gotham in which this film takes place is in the midst of a drastic socioeconomic upheaval. The streets are littered with filth and refuse, the consequences of a city-wide garbage strike, and businesses are closing down at an unsustainable rate. We’re told that poverty is running rampant, and that the wealthy elite, which includes the likes of Thomas Wayne, see the poor and destitute as worth little more than the same trash that now blocks the entrances to their shabby homes. Then along comes Fleck who, after a random, shocking act of violence, seems to inspire an Occupy Wall Street-esque political movement. Suddenly, hundreds of protesters begin to take to the streets, donning clown masks and colorful clothing, mimicking Arthur’s own appearance during the fateful encounter. He becomes a symbol to the downtrodden, and begins to relish in this fact. And although he never actually makes a move to affiliate himself with this movement, nor does he attempt to lead them or take credit for their actions, he does begin to revel in the idea that he has started something within the bowels of the city, something greater than himself. The film makes a very clear connection between Arthur’s pathetic life and the greater systemic woes plaguing the city, making a poster-child for the economically misfortunate.
And at times, the film seems as though it’s attempting to rally behind other causes as well. There’s certainly discussion of mental health and the systemic failures that can cause people like Fleck to break under the pressure of living without a support system. Given this country’s track record with mental illness and its relation to violence, this is certainly a poignant and timely discussion to have. Yet, Joker perhaps too strongly leans into the revenge fantasy aspect of this unfortunate situation a bit too much. Yes, Arthur is cast aside and looked down on by those who see him as broken and as not worth the effort to fix. Yes, he’s beaten, mugged, verbally accosted, and otherwise abused by most of the people he encounters throughout the film. But that doesn’t necessarily justify the level of retaliation that he ends up deciding to enact on his tormentors. It’s this particular aspect of the film that has been the subject matter of so many editorials and played-up news stories the past few weeks: Joker’s moral ambiguity.
That’s, to me, both the most fascinating and the most frustrating part of the film, in my eyes: It’s never clear just how we, as the audience, are meant to view Fleck, from a moralistic standpoint. We understand his pain, we see the torment he’s subject to, and, by the end of the film, almost begin to buy into his retaliatory actions. But the Joker is, after all, a villain first and foremost. Are we meant to take his side? And what does that say about our own sensibilities? The sympathy we feel for this character at the start of his journey is constantly weighed against the despicable and savage actions of his later self. The film itself is maddeningly vague on whether Arthur’s actions are meant to be condemnable or commendable. Are we meant to make a final judgement ourselves, or are we simply meant to take the events of the film at face value, and accept the grays in between the blacks and whites?
This is further complicated by the fact that, in keeping with his comic book inspiration, Fleck is an extremely unreliable narrator. While the film isn’t necessarily told by the character himself, it’s through his eyes that we see the events that transpire, following him on his journey into insanity. And at multiple points in the film, we are given evidence that things perhaps aren’t transpiring as they initially appear to be. Characters and events that we’ve accepted as part of the film’s canon may have never existed in the first place, or may have been greatly exaggerated. As Arthur descends further and further into the abyss, his grip on the world and on reality grows more and more tenuous. By the time the film is over, it’s genuinely unclear as to where exactly the story began to divert down this path of uncertainty. Was there a certain point where the truth began to skew? Or was this entire experience just an exercise in delusion and lunacy?
All of this amounts to an incredibly confusing viewing experience. How are we meant to feel when Fleck kills someone? He’s our protagonist, yes, and we are led to feel some degree of sympathy for the character. You understand his perspective, you empathize with his plight and how he came to be in this situation, and you want to see him overcome his struggles. There’s a sense of vindication in seeing him attack and kill people who had earlier done him harm. But you catch yourself, on occasion, enjoying it a bit too much. You shouldn’t be supportive of this sort of unhinged, ruthless behavior. Yet, part of you still is. That’s the true strength of the film. Arthur is very much like Breaking Bad’s Walter White in this sense. You understand entirely why he begins his journey. And by the end, you certainly still feel compelled to see its end. He’s a fascinating, complex figure, who can’t quite be pigeonholed into one moral camp or another. You tell yourself you can’t quite justify his actions, but, by that point, the story has trapped you. Pulling for a villain, even if they begin as a hero, is never an easy thing to do, from an ideological standpoint. At the end of the day, that’s the problem with making someone as irredeemably evil as the Joker into a protagonist. You ultimately have to imbue them with some redeemable and admirable qualities, or else the audience will feel no real attachment to the character. But once you do that, once you humanize a monster, it makes it all the more problematic once they reach their villainous conclusion.
I suppose, to play Devil’s Advocate, that this is all precisely what the goal of the film is. The Joker is meant to be the ultimate subversive figure, one who defies all moral and logical reasoning. To try and make sense of the character is to miss the point of it entirely. Perhaps Joker is not meant to have any real answers to its many questions, and perhaps Arthur Fleck isn’t meant to be admired or rejected as a protagonist. He just is. Good, evil, victim or villain, it doesn’t matter. In the end, what is the Joker if not chaos? Entropy and nonsense personified? In that sense, then, in a strange sort of way, this may in fact be the most accurate depiction of the character ever put to screen.
As a final aside, a relatively minor nitpick: probably the strangest choice this film makes, in my opinion, is the decision to make frequent scattered, incredibly forced references to the wider Batman mythos, despite both Phillips and Phoenix’s insistence that this is meant to be a standalone film. The Joker, as a character, is so intrinsically tied to Batman, both in origin and in ideology, that it seems almost blasphemous to make a film about the character without including his caped counterpart in at least some capacity. Yet Joker tries so hard for most of its runtime to distance itself from its comic book source material that the decision to suddenly include fairly crucial elements of the traditional depiction of Batman and the Wayne family seems jarringly out of place. I won’t spoil exactly what I’m referring to, but if you have even a cursory amount of familiarity with these characters, you’ll see it coming from a mile away, and it really takes you out of the film. It really does call into question just how disconnected this film is truly meant to be.
I think, ultimately, that Joker is going to be a film that’s going to be fairly divisive in the long run. While it certainly has many strengths, it also has far too much gray area to really make any solid conclusions one way or the other as to its intended message or theme (if, in fact, it even has one at all). I think are either going to be captivated by Phoenix’s performance and entranced by the story, or they’re going to hate the film for being too much of a character piece. It is, after all, still a comic book movie. There’s really no middle ground. That being said, I do genuinely believe that, taken as a whole, good or bad, this is an important film. It’s going to spark a lot of wonderful, meaningful debate, and I think will probably have a pretty substantial impact on the industry as well. I expect we’ll be seeing stranger, introspective comic adaptions in the near future, and frankly, I welcome it. Regardless of your opinion on the film, it can never be said that Joker wasn’t different. And sometimes, that’s the best a film can be.