Jaundiced and judicious, deeply cynical yet not quite ready to leap into the abyss, Joker is a provocatively toxic time capsule for an era of misguided rage. It’s galling, and pretty great. Don’t laugh.
For Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), laughter is a curse. Arthur suffers from something like pseudobulbar affect, a condition which makes it seem as if his emotions are on the fritz. He cackles uncontrollably in serious situations—especially when things are tense or he’s nervous. We first see him looking into a mirror, aggressively trying to form his face into the “appropriate” expression with his fingers, as if his skin was made of Silly Putty. Everyone else seems to manage their emotions so easily; why can’t he?
Arthur’s frail mother (Frances Conroy) claims that his laughing means he was meant to bring joy into the world. But his awkward appearances as a clown for hire and his disastrous attempts at stand-up comedy suggest otherwise. Even in the audience, Arthur can’t laugh correctly. When he reads (or more often misreads) the social cues around him and tries to join in with others’ laughter, he unleashes a harsh, forced caw that gets uncannily cut short. As he did in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Phoenix employs physicality to convey an internal brokenness, a man whose wires seem to be crossed. (The wayward strings in Hildur Guðnadottir’s terrific score, which seemingly swerve when they should be holding still, provide an audible variation of what we see on Arthur’s face.)
In Joker, Arthur’s plight is at once personal and corporate. Outside the dingy apartment Arthur shares with his mother, a garbage strike has left filth piling in the streets and led to “super rats” breeding in the alleys. Wealth is concentrating among the few—including Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who dismisses those demonstrating against class inequality as “clowns” and pledges to run as mayor in order to clean things up. At the same time, funding is cut for social programs like the one keeping Arthur in therapy and under medication. “It is certainly tense,” his social worker tells him. And this is before her department is shut down, just one of the dominos that leads to Arthur’s fall into criminal madness, his giving over to the persona from which the movie gets its name. In Tim Burton’s Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Joker arose from a vat of burbling green chemicals. Phoenix’s clown crawls out of an existential stew, one more specific but also diffuse, in which untreated mental illness, disenfranchisement of various kinds, easy access to guns, and the failure of institutions swirl about and eventually bubble over in violent fits of horrific, self-justified anger.
Phoenix’s performance is the centrifugal force of the movie, and not just because of what he does with his face. Limbs askew and limp hair flailing, he runs down alleys and hallways as if he’s wearing clown shoes, even when he’s not. There’s an arresting moment, after he’s committed his first act of violence while defending himself against a trio of abusive bros on a subway car, in which Arthur hides in a public restroom and begins performing something like tai chi. Perhaps he learned it in therapy, as a form of relaxation, but when he sees himself in the mirror he begins to morph his movements into a form of dance. It may be the first time in his life that Arthur has actually “won.” No longer seeing himself as a victim in need of healing, he begins to perform the part of triumphant entertainer.
Director Todd Phillips, who wrote the script with Scott Silver, gives Phoenix’s performance a fitting frame. It’s not just the dankness of the cinematography (though Lawrence Sher does lend the film a fetid glow); it’s also the oppressive mise en scene. There is a long, tall series of steps leading from one Gotham street to another that appears a few times in the film. The first time they’re featured, we see Arthur climbing up toward the camera at the top; though he’s rising, the drab buildings on either side—and the similarly gray architecture across the horizon behind him—make him appear trapped. He can’t escape his own, or Gotham’s, desolation. Emphasizing Phoenix’s angular frame, Phillips often places him within tight hallways where the walls seem ready to squish him. There are two striking establishing shots—one in which Arthur is sitting outside a hospital and another where he enters the Arkham psychiatric facility—and the buildings loom over him, more institutions that are supposed to aid but instead oppress.
Does all of this make Arthur too sympathetic, too much a victim rather than a villain? A look at David Fincher’s Fight Club might be instructive here. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, two Martin Scorsese films about disturbed, self-pitying men who turn violent, are clear influences on Joker (made obvious in casting Robert De Niro as a late-night talk show host Arthur idolizes), but it’s Fight Club that’s the more compelling parallel. Like Arthur, Edward Norton’s Narrator is an angry, unstable loner who has some legitimate gripes, but also addresses them with disproportionate means when he meets seductive anarchist Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt. Like Joker, Fight Club was criticized upon its release for glamorizing antisocial behavior; now it’s seen as slyly subversive, even prophetic—a dramatization of the consumer society we’re currently drowning in.
I’d argue Arthur Fleck is a far less slippery character than Tyler Durden. Durden’s appeal is obvious: he’s powerful, catnip for women, and couldn’t care less what anyone thinks. Oh, and did I mention he’s played by Abs Pitt? In comparison, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to be Arthur Fleck: scrawny, rejected, unfunny, awkward. And the movie, at key points, undermines him. There’s a telling moment where Arthur tries to tell off two police officers, and while walking away he runs into the glass of an automatic door that fails to slide open. Even the sole act of violence in the film that could possibly be construed as justified—his shooting of those subway bullies—is clumsily executed, with Arthur slipping and fumbling with the gun, a depiction of chaotic clumsiness rather than cool violence. (It’s also worth noting that those bullies initially target a woman, but Arthur does nothing. She has to save herself.)
Let’s also consider a later scene that takes place on those outdoor steps. Arthur has gone full Joker by now, and for a few seconds the movie puts us in his wobbly head. This time we see Arthur from the bottom of the stairs, looking up. He stands at the top, the sun blazing behind him, and begins dancing his way down to the sound of Gary Glitter’s cheesy and carnivalesque “Rock ‘n’ Roll (Part 2).” For Joker, this is a mountaintop moment, but the movie cuts it short: two cops appear at the top of the stairs, the music stops, and he goofily scrambles away. Keep in mind his direction, as well. Joker may feel exultant, but we’re literally watching him descend further into Gotham’s pit.
A distinction between Joker and Fight Club is that Fight Club is a satire, with soulless consumerism as its target. Joker doesn’t have that much ambition, which is one of the reasons Fight Club is the more potent work of art. Yet Joker nevertheless captures the volatile mood of our current moment, which is a boiling cauldron of its own. Everyone is outraged for different reasons, one sense of disenfranchisement competes with another, and the institutions that should provide stability only seem to foment the distress. “All I have are negative thoughts,” Arthur tells his social worker. These days, that seems to be all anyone has, including about Joker.
There’s something apropos in the fact that a film so attuned to the temperament of 2019 comes from a comic-book source. The discourse around such properties is often a variation on the vitriol in which Joker swims. What I’m left with after watching Joker is admiration for a movie that so artfully captures such societal turbulence, even as it also reminds us that violence will always be insanity—whether justified or unjustified, regretful or gleeful, the act of a superhero or the whim of a clown.