That Joker Isn’t Funny Anymore
Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman casts a critical eye over Warner Bros’ eagerly awaited Joker, out in cinemas from this Friday. Warning: spoilers ahead…
Director: Todd Phillips
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro
I am the Incel King. I can do anything!
Back in the early 1970s, the concept of the anti-hero, or non-hero, became a focal point of American cinema. The outcast, or misunderstood loner who revelled in his rejected or invisible status was a figurehead of a country experiencing post-1960s disillusion, brought to light by some of the best films that have ever been produced. Travis Bickle, Randall McMurphy, Popeye Doyle, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman’s characters in Scarecrow, and Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time. Such characters at least were comfortable in their isolation – even Bickle, whose descent into violent retribution was underpinned by more than self-pity.
But The Joker is a different proposition, and this ain’t the 70s. Whatever was romanticised or key about the outsider is long gone, replaced by a deep distrust of the other. Whatever those characters may have been, they weren’t clowns, or dupes. And Arthur Fleck, played with such ghoulish, naturalistic intensity by Joaquin Phoenix, is not an outsider, but an emblem of failure and dysfunction, both systemic and cultural. The Joker in comics from Neal Adams’ version onwards was always a monolithic force of delirious malevolence – a vessel of banal cruelty and sadism, adorned with unfunny pranks, a rictus grin and the need for attention. Without Batman to stop him, he really didn’t have that much to offer beyond being an unpredictable foil.
Joaquin’s Fleck is a clown and aspiring stand-up comedian with an array of debilitating mental illnesses, a loser (surely the worst thing to be these days) surviving through delusion, and the spare attention he receives when at work. In the early stages of the film he is pitiful, but doesn’t elicit that much sympathy – he looks after his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) while daydreaming about being loved and accepted, particularly on a talk show (shades of Requiem For A Dream) hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, attempting to play against type). He also has seemingly developed a relationship with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mother living in his building. At this stage he is the victim, attacked and humiliated by street thugs, haplessly bringing a gun to a children’s party, and eventually losing his job. The film, all washed out colours and grey tones, resembles a docudrama in its early stages, the story a litany of degradation for the benighted and sorrowful Fleck. But that all changes when he is mocked by Franklin live on air and subsequently shoots and kills three Ivy League bullies on a garishly dilapidated subway train. Before this, the movie leant heavily on tropes from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – the protagonist relentlessly humiliated or stonewalled without immediately lashing out. Thereafter, the film descends into an unusually graphic hyperrealism, borrowing liberally from Death Wish, V For Vendetta, Network and yes, Killing Joke.
As Fleck morphs into his endgame persona, the film can only graph the trajectory of this wilfully broken soul through a Bruegel-esque tableau of heartless brutality. Finally receiving the attention he has craved, Fleck, now the Joker, cheerily admits on Frankin’s chat show to the murder of the three men on the subway, before shooting the host dead. Did they not consider that such an unstable character should be screened?
What is curious during the stilted duologue between De Niro’s tawdry host and the Joker is how the latter claims that he is not political – and indeed, he isn’t. But the film’s focus on his degenerative psychopathy and moral descent due to being a marginalised figure on the fringes of society is. This is no entertainment, but a sledgehammer slab of polemic, with a message that is both simplistic and nebulous – the failure blaming society for his problems, using violence as a means to grab attention through fear. But there’s a more universal point to be made – the endemic admiration of the villain. Tony Soprano or Michael Corleone are both monsters, but possess poise and charisma – we love our mafioso sociopaths, especially when they are troubled, tragic entities who could’ve escaped their fate as gang bosses but through circumstance and upbringing didn’t. And of course they are above the law, making them conduits for countless wish fulfilment fantasies. They have honour and respect in this context, but are every bit as repugnant as the Joker is at the end of this movie. And with this being 2019, it would be impossible for Fleck’s self-creation not to be the icon of a social media-inspired cult, no doubt modelled on the incel “culture” (whose adherents in this movie look like members of Slipknot). with the aforementioned nod to V For Vendetta thrown in.
In terms of production it is marvellous, harrowing in its bitter claustrophobia and consistent in its bleakness, while Phoenix is magnificent in his commitment to the role. Gotham is both gaudy and hellish, peopled with caricatures and stooges, with the needy, powerless Fleck buttressed into his situation. The scene which reveals that his relationship with his neighbour Sophie was all a figment of his imagination is both heart-rending and subtle, even though it opts for being explicit. There are some terrific noir moments, but they are sandwiched between longueurs in whited out hospital corridors and clinician’s offices. The nods to the canon (his meetings with Bruce Wayne and his parents) seem almost superfluous, with Arkham Asylum a more palpable presence. Joker wears you down with its persistence, with little variation in tone, while the denouement over-emphasises the pathos of the antagonist and his mob. They are pathetic, enacting a shadowplay of numbing self-hatred that leaves the audience exhausted and equally disconnected.
Recommended, if only to see what the fuss was about after all the reckless media attempts to turn this film into a cause celebre (apparently cinemas in the U.S. are preventing people wearing masks or white slap makeup from seeing it, a la Clockwork Orange). I admit I was excited as anyone to see this film but in the end all that can be gleaned from it is the abyss that is at its core. Instead of a morose and measured take on the forgotten and shunned underclass, it is a feelbad experience, that like its antagonist, screams at you but has little to say, with no epiphanies of any description. I guess one could call that a brave move, but it is also artless. If anyone is worried that this film might set a precedent, be reassured that 1) there has never been a shortage of dark and gritty genre movies, and 2) it won’t.
If ever a film needed grey, blue and black spandex.
Joker is out from 4 October in UK and US cinemas and here’s the film’s trailer.