Because of scenes of graphic violence and because it is a film about a character whose own violence inspires violence, Joker, directed by Todd Phillips (best known for the Hangover trilogy) and starring Joaquin Phoenix, is one of the most controversial films in recent years. In its composition of individual scenes and in Phoenix’s performance, the Joker is quite impressive. In the end, however, it is a film full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is certainly not, as Phillips has described it in rejoinders to critics, a film whose realistic presentation of bloodshed is instructive about the nature of violence.
In conjunction with the development of the Joker backstory, the film re-imagines the Wayne family. In the standard narrative, Bruce Wayne’s father is a wealthy philanthropist who cares for the underprivileged. In the retelling here, he’s a ruthless politician who calls people who haven’t made something of themselves “clowns.” He thus motivates a sort of populist rebellion, with protestors donning clown masks. The Joker unwittingly becomes a kind of hero for the disaffected mob.
The focus of the film is the story of how Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a loner who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and harbors a baseless aspiration to be a stand-up comic, becomes the Joker. The film depicts him as the victim of multiple types of abuse. He is mocked by co-workers and assaulted by young thugs. He sees a therapist whose questions and advice seem nothing more than perfunctory. Yet the two bond over the fact that the government, which is cutting back on health-care services that will deprive him of his meds and her of a job, is indifferent to real people. Early on, the film underscores the fact that the Joker is fatherless; not long after that issue is raised, questions surface about the Joker’s mother, with whom he has lived all his life and over whom he dotes affectionately.
The film’s presentation of the origins of the Joker’s persona appeals to so many possible causes that it is hard to take any in particular seriously. They are all open to variant interpretations. For example, Wayne’s reference to “clowns” could be seen as a right-wing slighting of the unemployed or as a Hillary Clinton-esque mockery of “deplorables.”
At any rate, Arthur’s afflictions are merely the occasions or prods or fiery pokers to unleash the wrath within. The film does a magnificent job of pacing the emergence of the Joker. It is in one sense a slow but inevitable development; yet, in another sense, it comes in a series of abrupt explosions. Phoenix delivers a mesmerizing performance. In preparation for the part, Phoenix dropped fifty pounds, studied narcissistic personality types, and learned to mimic the bodily movements of Buster Keaton and Ray Bolger, the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.
The contortions of his emaciated physique, the cackling laughter at jokes no one else hears, and the alternation between pathetic vulnerability and uninhibited violence render Phoenix’s performance quite memorable. The soundtrack, which combines the dark and claustrophobic score of Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir with breezy show tunes, further serves to keep the audience unsettled. The shift from one sort of music to the other marks the transition from Arthur’s tragic life of affliction to the Joker’s embrace of carefree nihilism, which more than hints at the entertainment value of violence.
In response to the criticism of the film’s alleged celebration of violence, Phillips responded, “Isn’t it a good thing to take away the cartoon element of violence that we’ve become so immune to?” He added that it “seems actually very responsible to make it feel real and make it have weight and implication.”
Cartoonish, the film is not. But it’s a leap to go from that to the claim that the portrayal of violence has “weight and implications.” To show the latter, a film needs to exhibit the impact of violence on innocent victims with whom viewers have been led to sympathize and perhaps even on the perpetrator of the violence. Joker does neither. It is so fixated on the Joker that it fails to develop any other characters and the Joker’s victims are all presented as people who have to some degree brought the violence upon themselves.
Moreover, for the Joker himself violence alleviates rather than exacerbates his misery. It is a path of liberation and a means of authentic artistic self-expression. As is standard in so many films depicting super-human evil characters, the amoralism of the Joker rests on his recognition that conventional codes or morality are bankrupt. The novelty here is the persona adopted by Arthur Fleck, who in this case is not wearing a mask to hide his real identity but to express it.
Occupying a place beyond good and evil, the Joker turns his life into pure performance. There is no difference between the real person and the actor, between fact and fiction, or between life and art. About these large themes, the film has little to say. Phoenix’s dazzling performance is the heart of this film. As captivating as that is, its transformation of carnage into a form of artistic self-expression is hardly a vehicle for the education of viewers in the “weight and implications” of real-world violence.
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