There is a curious quality to Todd Phillips’ Joker. Since release the film has been dissected ad nauseum, striking a chord with the popular consciousness and sticking in the mind like a cinematic earworm. Unfortunately, despite its commercial success, the film has firmly missed the mark.
Clearly, a lot of talented people worked on Joker. The film wears its influences on its sleeve, displaying a well-versed knowledge of the media that came before. It references everything from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, the 1988 comic which first gave the Joker a ‒ possibly false ‒tragic backstory, to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), to Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy (1983). In Phillips’ Joker, colour is used to brilliant effect cinematically. The Joker, or Arthur Fleck, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, stands out initially from the predominantly muted colours of the film in his clown costume, and later in his crimson suit, placing him at odds visually with the world around him. In terms of cinematography, Joker boasts some impressive shots of this especially grey and bleak Gotham. One shot in particular stands out: Fleck ascending a long staircase home, dwarfed on either side by Gotham’s oppressive architecture. Phoenix’s acting in the titular role is undoubtedly the film’s highlight, and he is able to play both the vulnerable, wide-eyed Arthur and the menacing Joker, brimful of barely restrained violence.
Where the film begins to fray is in its scripting. The writing is inconsistent. Fleck’s motivations simply aren’t fleshed out enough, considering that he is supposed to be the centre of this character study. No one already familiar with The Joker as a character will enter this film expecting to sympathise with him – he is a villain after all – but unsympathetic characters can still be fascinating to watch. However, in Phillips’ Joker, Fleck swings back and forth between shy and bloodthirsty with little warning or sense of escalation. These seemingly random oscillations are blamed on a vaguely defined mental condition that is implied to be either hereditary or caused by head trauma. Joker takes murderous revenge on some characters while others, equally or even more responsible for causing him harm, are spared with no clear reason beyond, presumably, a desire to keep the audience guessing. We are never granted a glimpse into the internal logic driving Fleck to make these decisions, and this makes him decidedly less compelling, even with Phoenix’s standout performance. The film seems to want to challenge the stigma and lack of support people suffering from mental illnesses – or brain damage, as the case may be for Fleck – face, but this feels disingenuous in a film where the protagonist’s mental condition is reduced to a cheap plot device. Similarly, class inequality figures seemingly as a major theme, but is not explored beyond gestures about “rich individuals are selfish and uncaring”. Not necessarily an incorrect notion, but certainly not a novel one.
Ultimately, my biggest problem with Joker was its lack of compelling characters. If Fleck feels too inconsistent to be believable, the characters he interacts with are too flat, despite admirable efforts from members of the supporting cast including love interest Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy as Fleck’s troubled mother. The story spreads itself thinly over three major plot threads with little time to flesh out the characters in any of them. Perhaps Phillips wanted the viewer to feel as alienated as Fleck does from the world around him. If so then he has succeeded, and while this may have made for an interesting and intelligent short film, the result is difficult to sit through for two hours.
Overall, Joker is a frustrating film. Like The Killing Joke, it tried to do something different with the eponymous character, and for that it deserves applause. However, its ideas are executed poorly, making for a film that is lovely to look at but leaves no emotional impact beyond, perhaps, a vague longing for what could have been.