“Joker” is a Fascinating Yet Unsatisfying Character Study
This review may contain spoilers for “Joker.”
After weeks of intense controversy surrounding the inherently sensitive material of the film, director Todd Phillip’s character study on the titular Clown Prince of Crime debuted in North America on Oct. 4. “Joker” is an exploration of the origins of the famous DC Comics villain, exploring the role of society in the creation and molding of a super-villain. The film is a twisted, bizarre and disturbing trip through the mind of a downtrodden, mentally ill social outcast. It is brilliant and masterful; however, it is also complexly and perhaps inherently flawed.
The story follows Arthur Fleck, a clown-for-hire suffering from a disability that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at particularly difficult moments. The audience is led to believe that Fleck faces a myriad of other conditions and mental illnesses, but they are never quantified in the film. Fleck feels beaten down and forgotten by society, and as the film progresses, he finds himself falling deeper and deeper into a hole which he cannot dig himself out of.
Star Joaquin Phoenix, who embodies Fleck, is arguably the most thorough and well-performed on-screen interpretation of the Joker, at least since Heath Ledger’s landmark performance as the Joker in 2012’s “The Dark Knight.” Phoenix’s re-imagining of the classic character is a completely new look at the Joker. “Joker” is very much Phoenix’s spotlight to shine in. Nearly every scene in the film centers on Phoenix and his descent into madness. “Joker” is an intense character study of Fleck, and would crumble without the profound performance from Phoenix. The rest of the cast play relatively minor supporting roles, all of which contribute to Fleck’s complete unraveling.
The cast’s brilliant performances are bolstered by director Todd Phillips’ design and control of the camera throughout the film. Although “Joker” is Phillips’ first non-comedy film, he seems to have already mastered the art of heightening tension, drama and atmosphere through the use of color, set design, makeup and camera angles. The way Phillips unfolds the film and suggests details to the audience is profound and excellent.
Additionally, “Joker’s” strikingly sparse score swells and settles to perfectly match the mood of each scene. The music consistently compliments Fleck’s moods, movements and descent into madness. As the film progresses, the instrumentation becomes heavier, more chaotic, and more intense until it overflows in the film’s dual climaxes.
“Joker,” however, is not without its flaws. The film’s deepest misfire manifests in its attempt to craft a deep, enigmatic message about society. With its constant attempts at misdirection, the film’s subversiveness often feels more like a gimmick or intentional attempt at “edginess” rather than a genuine attempt to make a well-thought-out statement about society and the way it treats people like Fleck. The Joker himself repeatedly describes himself as “apolitical,” but still manages to squeeze in a half-baked, anti-establishment message that doesn’t seem to resonate with anyone in particular.
At its core, “Joker” is “fake deep:” it attempts to say something real and impactful, but comes off shallow and forced. While the script, performances, and directional choices are masterful and executed brilliantly, the foundational idea of the film, that the audience could empathize with a serial murderer and reflect on the film’s implications on their own society, is inherently unstable. The film’s message and intended direction is so vague and incomplete that there is no one correct interpretation of the film. And to suggest that the film is intentionally vague because Fleck himself is unsure of what is happening around him is an unsatisfying cop out: as a filmmaker, you cannot implore the audience to reflect on a film’s message if the film’s message is that there is no real message. A reflection on modern nihilism should not be supported by a nihilistic interpretation of the concept.
Simply put, “Joker” is somehow both a cinematic masterpiece and also a comically flawed and often directionless exploration of mental illness, nihilism and the breakdown of society. It is deeply and intensely disturbing to watch, but it is also an unforgettable, vital cinematic experience. It is driven by a stunning performance from Phoenix and excellent direction from Phillips, and has survived an intense onslaught of controversy on all sides in the weeks leading up to its release. It remains to be seen whether “Joker’s” positives are enough mark it as a turning point in the comic book movie genre. Either way, “Joker” will be remembered as being no laughing matter.