Second Take: Joker (2019)

Want to read more Joker thoughts? Check out Peter’s review here.

Todd Phillips’ self-important attempt to reinterpret the comic book movie is a bold, but deeply flawed social experiment. Don’t let the bipolar reactions fool you; it’s neither a masterpiece, nor a cinematic dumpster fire, but something far more intriguing and ultimately disappointing. Swathed with vitriolic online discussion (both for and against) throughout the entirety of its production, Joker has finally arrived and just like everyone else on social media; I have some thoughts…

As a lifelong devotee of the Church of Scorsese, anyone who is even vaguely familiar with his seedy New York classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy is going to have their feathers ruffled from the sheer amount of copy and paste hijinx that’s taking place. Homage and intertextuality is one thing, but Joker isn’t just completely indebted to Marty and his masterworks: this film couldn’t exist without them. What’s worse, there’s either a presumption that you haven’t seen those epochal films, or an arrogance that their blatant plagiarism doesn’t matter. We’re not talking slight referential nods either, but several crucial and iconic character moments, camera framing and even plot details are directly ripped from Scorsese’s oeuvre and lazily remixed throughout the film. 

Thematically, Phillips and fellow screenwriter Scott Silver present an intriguing initial justification for the film’s existence. We’ve seen multiple variations of the Joker’s transformation by way of toxic chemicals over the decades. Burton’s 1989 film being the most direct and memorable instance. In 2019, the transformation is institutional and societal, and deeply unnerving. Who needs Ace chemicals when we already live in a festering vat of societal chemical waste? Don’t believe me? Spend 15 minutes on twitter. 

Breathing traumatic life into this bleak assessment of our world, is the always mesmerising Joaquin Phoenix, giving yet another tour-de-force performance. My many issues with the film notwithstanding, you can’t help but applaud every second of Phoenix’s full bodied and unadulterated descent into the skeletal frame of Arthur Fleck. Visibly gaunt and fuming internally, Phoenix’s raw and gritty portrayal helps audiences to partially empathise with the character’s rotten hand and inability to navigate through polite society’s economic labyrinth. That is, to a point. 

The film wishes for Fleck to be viewed somewhat sympathetically alongside fellow social outcasts Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, but the script’s complete lack of faith in the audience, subtlety and restraint prevent that from ever manifesting itself in a meaningful or organic way. Issues of class, social decline, solipsism, mental illness and the eradication of health services are referenced in passing, but a thought-provoking and much-needed examination of these themes is nowhere to be found. Bickle and Pupkin shocked audiences because their backstories, motivations and off putting actions were shaded with deliberate ambiguity. Even during Bickle’s final bloody assault or Pupkin’s final monologue, we’re still nonthewiser about who they are or why they are. 

Phillips can’t help himself, as he consistently opts for the obvious and undercuts much of the momentum and hard work put in by Phoenix. The man starved himself to the point where his bones are almost visibly protruding out of his flesh. It’s frustrating because there’s far more complexity on offer here than your average Marvel or DC Comics feature. But the filmmakers constantly feel the need to dumb things down through unnecessary exposition, repeteated images and re-edited fantasy sequences to spell out everything, so that every last ounce of subtext is watered down to nothing.

One of the many ways that Christopher Nolan’s/Heath Ledger’s Joker will forever be immortalised in popular culture was the way in which his “how I got these scars” stories and the ever-evolving lie made the character far more dangerous and unpredictable. In a clear and faithful interpretation of the widely acclaimed The Killing Joke graphic novel, The Dark Knight proved that not knowing the origins of evil was far more appealing and rewarding then being spoon fed from a heavy hand. Something that I thought was universally agreed upon. 

While the majority of this review outlines where I take issue with this film, it must be acknowledged that the production design and score (composer Hildur Guðnadóttir from Chernobyl fame) are both sublime, and help establish Gotham (New York) as a living, breathing entity with a dark beating heart. They combine to create the perfect atmospheric playground for an on-edge Fleck to slowly dance himself into his Joker persona. A gun in hand, arms open in crucifix position, eyes dead-locked to the heavens. 

Most problematic of all is the final act and Fleck’s eventual and complete transformation as Mr. J. While notions of boycotting and banning are asinine and completely unwarranted, Phillips clear lack of moral clarity and commentary is still troubling. Fleck is framed and positioned as a messianic figure and images of violent protest and revolution are glorified. While I’m not averse to enjoying a well crafted piece of bleak nihilistic spectacle, Joker positions itself as a violent rallying cry for the mentally ill, disaffected, unseen and unheard loners. It’s hard to get on board with anyone, both fictitious or real, who feels the world owes them something. It’s even harder (and perhaps irresponsible) when a filmmaker haphazardly comments on social concerns, but doesn’t illustrate where he or she stands either.

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