As Gotham City tenses amidst a garbage strike, struggling comedian and clown Arthur Fleck deteriorates before the cold eyes of those he knows and an even more uncaring society. His downward spiral of mental anguish and crushed hope sets off a domino effect of criminal behaviour – until the Joker is born.
Few superhero films have split critical opinion like Joker. There’s an even divide in DC universe modern blockbusters between the critically acclaimed and more realistic Dark Knight films, and reviled cape-and-tights affairs like Batman vs Superman. DC’s films have all exhibited a penchant for darkness usually uncharacteristic of superhero films, which has led to criticism in and of itself. On top of this, the franchise’s attempts to alter this bleak tone have been derided too. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, director Todd Phillips’ origin story had a lot riding on it.
It didn’t fail to disappoint in confounding the many. The film was marketed as a character study of a tragic figure struck with mental health issues in a bleak and uncaring world. But despite the meaningful shots fired at society’s treatment of those with mental health struggles and social outsiders, Joker can’t resist having its cake and eating it too. Meant to be a ‘standalone’ film, Phillips still drops in numerous Batman links, which strips some authenticity from the film’s message.
A lot has been made of how Philips approaches the film’s sensitive topics too. Some critics have claimed the material is ‘too dark’, while others think Joker leans too heavily on mental health stereotypes. The truth is roughly in the middle. Those who think the film is too edgy clearly haven’t seen truly harrowing affairs like The Nightingale – Phillips’ film still very much suits a broad palette. Criticism of how the movie approaches mental health, meanwhile, seems lazy, especially from those who have no idea about the production team’s personal connections with the material. That said, Phillips is heavy-handed with stock imagery (pill bottles = mental health; easy to remember), reminding us this is still a studio film with nothing truly new to say.
That said, Phillips does a decent job in toeing the line between insightful dystopia and commercial appeal. For a guy who’s know for the Hangover franchise, Joker is practically refined. Visual and thematic homage to Taxi Driver lends the film additional weight and grittiness, with Gotham’s character particularly pronounced. Garbage-lined streets and graffiti-covered trains give the city an edge that other Batman-universe films have always lacked.
Phillips combines directing duties and co-penning the script (alongside Scott Silver). The narrative, despite its 122-minute run time, never drags, and the violence is minimal for maximum impact. The main issue is in Arthur Fleck’s character development, which fragments a bit with illogical leaps in what should be a sequential moral break down. For example, midway through the film Fleck is attacked by a group of men, who he kills in self-defence. This should have been a major moment of transformation – instead it was treated as a minor step in Fleck’s gradual change to the Joker. More focus on balancing logical character development with hitting the right script pacing would have improved Joker.
The true tour de force in the film, however, is Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance. His physical transformation and shocking weight loss to match Fleck’s scrawny, twisted frame is matched only by the subtlety of his emotional development from pained social outcast to vengeful revolutionist leaning on his creeping insanity for power. Phoenix singlehandedly lifts the film to more than it could have been otherwise.
Neither full-blown pretentious pseudo-block buster nor insightful arthouse, Joker is a good character study – but it leans too heavily on overdone tropes and DC Easter eggs. 7/10.