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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Film Review: Joker (2019)


In a Gotham City that feels like a 1970s Scorsese-movie theme park, Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck struggles to determine if his life is a tragedy, a comedy, or just plain crazy…


I realise that I’m late to the party when it comes to Joker, this year’s big DC Comics movie. The film has already become a global box-office smash, breaking the all-time record for an October release, and it is very close to dethroning Deadpool as the highest-grossing R-rated film in cinema history.


The movie has also generated a blizzard of headlines, with many critics giving the film five-star reviews, calling it a masterpiece, while others have been… well, far less kind about it.


Outside of the reviews it has received, columnists and bloggers have written think-pieces, wringing their hands over the morality of the film, querying what it says about our times, sweatily pontificating on whether or not it might serve as a rallying cry for the dispossessed men of the far-right online ‘incel’ community.


In response to a lot of these discussions, I feel I have to roll my eyes. This is not to say that Joker is a bad film by any stretch – it is rather entertaining in parts, featuring three genuinely excellent laughs and a few robust set-piece moments. But to imply that it is likely to inspire psychopaths is a bit like suggesting that Iron Man was a film to inspire vigilante rocket suit inventors. It’s silly, and patronising – much like Joker becomes during its worst moments.



One reason I was late off the mark when it came to seeing the movie was that is had so many discussions swirling around it.


There was also the sense that began to build as early as last year that the movie was going to be one of those ‘event’ films – a film that everyone needs to see – and that made me itchy.


More than anything though, all the signals the film was sending me gave me the impression that when I did get around to seeing it there would be little in the movie to surprise me and, regrettably, that is more or less what came to pass.


In short, Joker it is yet another comic book origin story, and yet another sympathetic portrayal of a psychopath – two genres of televisual entertainment that have dominated screens in the 21st century.


Rife with cliché, and trading on edginess, Joker is a Ronseal film, doing exactly what it says on the tin.


Perhaps I seem overly cynical here, but I do not want to imply that I am angry or particularly negative about the movie. It’s just that I feel wearied by having had the same meal too many times, and felt that in the case of Joker especially that it was really rubbing the idea of cliché in my face.


Part of the problem comes with the territory, in that The Joker is one of the most iconic American villains full-stop. We have seen many, many takes on him, and having been a hardcore Batman fan from my teenage years until my late 20s I am a bit of a boring, slightly affected authority on him.



From the wacky 1960s TV version to the multifaceted Mark Hamill version of Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and the Arkham Trilogy of video games, the goofy Jack Nicholson take to the trashy Jared Leto incarnation, the Joker of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, the Joker of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the Joker of the Silver Age of comics, the Joker of Batman: No Man’s Land, and the dozens of Joker ‘editions’ in-between... I know them. I have been paying attention. As such, I ought to be this movie's target audience.

Part of what makes the character iconic is that he is the tails to Batman’s heads. He is Batman's foil and the ultimate trickster - the most interesting of the Caped Crusader’s all-but-fathomless and genuinely intriguing Rogues Gallery.


Partly for this reason, The Joker has a dozen origin stories, none of them particularly interesting – and that’s what made Christopher Nolan’s Joker so special, as played momentously by Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight: how the Joker came to be is not important. It’s what he represents that matters. The untameable, unkillable spirit of disorder that represents the beautiful, heart-rending futility of Batman’s endless, stupid, hopeless war on crime.



The complexity of the Joker is its own ouroboros, of course, although rather than the dragon that bites its own tail it’s a bit like the nerd whose head disappears up his own behind.


Part of the issue comics writers have had with him is that there is nothing left to do – nothing more horrendous or horrific that they can dream up than the nightmares of our own reality. It feels as if we cannot learn anything from him any more, and while he makes for a timeless fancy dress costume the general view is that there is not much more to glean from what he represents than the ideas I have already mentioned.


Moreover, to make a Joker film without Batman is a bit like making a Moriarty film without Sherlock Holmes. I mean, sure, it's possible, but what's the point?


This problem is one that has been echoed in an ungodly amount of television and on plenty of film in recent years. Let's call it, "the antihero conundrum."



A series that embodies the issue brilliantly was the HBO remake of House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey, but you can find it in dozens of other places too – Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Dexter, the whole Hannibal Lecter cottage industry, from Michael Mann’s Manhunter through Anthony Hopkins’ take on the character to the recent TV adaptation - not to mention all of the imitator films and TV shows pastiching Thomas Harris’ genre-defining works, from Se7en to Gone Girl and back again.


At the heart of this particular genre is a simple yet appealing idea: why not have an unspeakably bad sociopathic villain be our protagonist? They are inhuman, sure, but they look human, and are clever, and by making the audience complicit, willing these monsters on, we can explore their own villainy and enjoy the vicarious thrill of letting everyone's freak flags fly.

It is not a new idea, of course. Shakespeare did it particularly notably with Richard III, and we are familiar with the idea through the many Faust retellings over the centuries. The Greeks were deep into the idea too.


The thing about all of these narratives though is that they all end the same way: the antihero pays for their sins with death, the implication being that they will suffer most in the afterlife. I thought that Joker might be bold enough to follow through on this idea, but it chickened out, and that's a shame.



And that's not to say that everyone is a coward about the idea. For example, one recent take on the genre that did a really good job of playing with the form was Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. In that series, the protagonist, Walter White, was a comic book antihero – he even had the alliterative name. Heck, he might as well have been the Joker to Hank's Batman. And we loved Walter, and we hated him, and when the time came the series took pains to grind him into the dirt.


That was a show with moral purpose – it acknowledged that we live in atheistic times, so Walter’s punishment was earthly and ironic. It updated the recipe, and gave us a five-act classical drama that Aristotle might have responded to with a double thumbs-up.


The trouble is, most TV and film writers are greedy. They create antiheroes and don’t want to kill them because they are profitable show-ponies. These writers give their monsters dead-end narratives that meander around, go nowhere, and often utterly fail to conclude – or, if they do then they do so ambiguously at best.


This is a problem that has plagued comic books since the form came into being. Heck, it’s a problem with stories. The only ones that work are those that end satisfactorily, and part of the reason why so many books, films, TV series, songs, operas, plays and shaggy dog pub chats feel like a waste of time is because they ultimately go nowhere.


Complicating matters further, writing the openings to story-lines is easy. You can then layer challenge on top of challenge like an infinitely repeating dramatic trifle, and tension will likely rise and rise to a fever pitch. But, and it is a big but, it is astonishingly rare that complex narratives ever pay off. All that happens in almost every comic book movie or anti-hero story is a cliff-hanger quasi-ending that sets up the continuation of the endless trudge to nowhere.



Case in point: Avengers: Endgame - a 'conclusive' film that relies on spectacle to obscure grand scale deus ex machinations that are dramatically inert and serve only to set up Stage 57,000 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.


And to be clear, Joker invites discussion of this stuff. The film opens with the title character pulling his face into two important shapes – the smiling mask of comedy, and the anguished mask of tragedy. These are the seminal story forms; either your narrative ends with a union of lovers, making it a comedy, or your narrative ends with a death, making it a tragedy. You can blur the lines if you like, and have both happen, making yourself a tragicomedy, but those are your primary options.


If your film or story is not going to offer any semblance of either of these endings, please, for goodness’ sake, don’t signal that your narrative is going to explore them right at the start.


Indeed, a huge problem with Joker is its ending, which I won’t spoil here. What I will say about it though is the final scenes seemingly work to undermine the whole rest of the film. They appear to take place in a pocket universe. They might be taking place before the rest of the film happens, might be taking place afterwards. They might even imply that none of the film happened at all, and that the whole thing was imaginary – but the film has little to no interest in signposting which of these options is the right one.


As far as I could tell, in fact, the team behind the film just didn’t know what to do, so tacked on a conclusion bathed in antiseptic light that was designed to confound. And suffice to say, it said nothing. It was meaningless – and if there is one major criticism I would level at Joker is that it is an empty, meaningless film. It is spectacular at times, certainly, but it is morally and spiritually vacuous, which is a real shame. It need not have been, if just a few different choices had been made.



Another problem with Joker is that the movie is decidedly post-modern, grafting cultural potency from other organisms to give it a sense of power. Most notably the film evokes two Martin Scorsese films – Taxi Driver and King of Comedy – and even features Robert De Niro playing a supporting character.


The trouble is, both of those films had clear, profound, dangerous things to say, and Joker doesn’t.


Elsewhere, the movie also drags Charlie Chaplin into the mix – in one sense subtly, and elsewhere in a manner about as sharp as a brick.


The first is that when we first see Arthur Fleck out in the world, he is dressed as Chaplin’s iconic character The Tramp – a trickster himself, who gets away with bad behaviour in defiance of the systems around him. The music of those films is evoked frequently, too.


Thing is, Chaplin’s Tramp appears again in a screening of Modern Times that Arthur sneaks into, and if you know that film then you will also know that the movie hinges on the idea that modern society is chewing up and making existence impossible for the every-man.


This is something we understand implicitly in 2019, yet Joker offers no diagnosis of or response to the problems that Chaplin was exploring in 1936. It just reiterates them, explicitly, in the film's worst moment - a point where thin subtext is blurted out in front of a studio audience.



A final issue of note, ignoring the total implausibility of much of the movie’s story-line, is that early on in the film Arthur is identified as an unreliable narrator. What we see of the world, we see through his eyes, and he is lying to himself and lying to us.


This is problematic in particular because Arthur doesn’t actually want us to believe anything at all – he is congenitally mad, and can’t keep his story straight. As such, when it comes to audience discussions of issues around implausibility, the cack-handed ending, or just about anything that happens across the movie’s running time, it is hard to not feel, even while watching it unfolding, that the movie thinks you are either too stupid or too lazy to notice its lack of conviction.


Now, while I have obviously mentioned a great deal of what is wrong with the film, it is important also to mention what is right about it.


First and foremost, Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant in this movie. That said, he is brilliant in just about everything, from his earlier work in movies like M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and The Village or Ridley Scott’s Gladiator to his more recent performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Inherent Vice, Spike Jonze’s Her and Lynne Ramsay’s blistering You Were Never Really Here from last year.



A lot of people also loved James Mangold’s Walk The Line, a film where Phoenix played another American outlaw icon, but I was pretty ambivalent about it; either way, there is no doubt that Phoenix is one of America's greatest living screen performers.


In Joker, he has followed in Batman’s own footsteps, doing what Christian Bale did for 2005’s The Machinist and starving himself half to death for the part; his rendition of The Joker is as skeletal as any of Tim Burton’s protagonists have ever been, and the sense that he is a walking corpse, hungry for flesh, makes his spiral into total mania all the more impactful.


Performances around Phoenix are also strong in this film, although they are also broad in the way many comic book movies are allowed to be. De Niro’s take on Johnny Carson is decent, Frances Conroy’s mother is wonderfully creepy, if thimble-deep, and it’s nice to see the ever-reliable Shea Whigham appearing alongside the consistently excellent Bill Camp; the pair play two bumbling detectives, and as superb supporting character actors it is perhaps unsurprising that they do what they need to do very well here.


Aside from the central thrust of its narrative, the film has three sub-plots to keep a handle on, one featuring Brett Cullen’s take on Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce, the second featuring Zazie Beets as Sophie, Arthur’s love interest, and the third centring around Glenn Fleshler and Leigh Gill who play Arthur's fellow clowns.


Each of these story-lines has their charms, with the first carrying a great deal of tension and appealing enormously to comic nerds like me (it is one of the movie’s few original and worthwhile contributions). The last offers the film’s best scene – a moment bathed in complexity and blood that genuinely qualifies as tragicomic. The middle one however is the movie’s dampest damp squib – it feels too obvious, too lazy, and director Todd Phillips did not have the courage of his convictions when it came to winding it up.


In this moment, Phillips shows his hand, really. He wants us to like The Joker, and he is scared of pushing the audience too far. He pulls his punches when he should be breaking bones - but then again, he is a director who drives only in middle gears, and always has been



Suffice to say, Phillips is at the heart of what makes this film both as good and as bad as it is. Let us not forget that he is the man who brought us Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover Trilogy, Due Date, and the god-awful remake of School for Scoundrels. It would be decidedly unfair to call him a hack director, but he is certainly a director of hack films; he plays to the lowest common denominator, loves shabbiness, and has not showed much artistic progress in making this movie.


By this I mean that yes, he creates a Gotham where the sky is hard to see, blocked in by skyscrapers or obscured by clouds. It is a faded, sepia world, aping Scorsese, but it contributes nothing new to that caustic cinematic worldview. Likewise, he includes a few good gags. He pulls in references from iconic films and comics, and he puts the camera in front of Phoenix and lets him work, but there is so little new in this film that I really struggled to identify what direction he offered or, more importantly, what point there was in his direction - apart from fan service.


As such, I can see why Joker has been so successful. It is a film by a fanboy for fanboys. It is about one of the great American villains – one notably played in one of the best thrillers released in the last decade by a man who died before that film was released.



In all honesty, I believe that a great deal of what made Suicide Squad a commercial success was that it offered our first glimpse of the Joker since Heath Ledger passed, and the disappointment that film generated just fuelled a greater appetite for another Joker appearance.


Elsewhere, Phillips uses plundered ideas and iconography from almost a century of cinema and over a millennium of drama – and from some key very popular graphic novels.


The film has a great, culty star who offers a everything to the role, including an extraordinarily characterful run and an awful lot of endless, pointless dancings.


And last of all, Joker does what a lot of comic book films do – it tantalizes. It sets things up pretty interestingly, and leaves the crowd wanting more by resolving almost nothing. And, for whatever reason, this is something that audiences today seem to really like.


For my money though, the most telling scene in the film is one that I expect plays very differently on this side of the Atlantic – a moment where The Joker gambols heroically down some stairs, kicking through puddles, to the tune of Gary Glitter’s stomp-rock anthem Rock & Roll Part 2.


As this moment occurred onscreen, I thought to myself, “If they are making a point about perversion here – about the wrongheaded glamorisation of evil – then maybe this movie is smarter than it appears.”


It isn’t, incidentally.


But that doesn’t stop me wishing that the rest of the soundtrack had been made up of banging tunes by the likes of Phil Spector, Sid Vicious, Michael Jackson, Lostprophets’ Ian Watson, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner and R. Kelly.


That would have been something.


That’s a joke that I definitely would have got.

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