If Joker wasn’t called “Joker,” you’d never know it was a DC movie. Though there are characters with the last name “Wayne” and it takes place in a city called “Gotham,” there’s little else that distinguishes Todd Phillips’ latest film as a comic book movie. It’s a solid, well-made film that, ultimately, has a bit of an identity crisis.
Joker isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. What it definitely is is a movie about a disturbed man named Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Arthur is a clown-for-hire who lives with his mother Penny (American Horror Story’s Frances Conroy) in a powder keg of a city that’s just waiting to explode. And, without really even realizing the impact his actions are having on the outside world, Arthur ends up lighting the fuse.
Joker is a comic book origin story with very little comic book in it. The whole thing very purposefully feels like a love letter to cinema of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s rather than other dark DC superhero movies like Tim Burton’s Batman or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Using that gritty aesthetic, Phillips is much more interested in dissecting what makes a comic book character real than making a real comic book character and, in that aim, he’s successful. Arthur is a fascinating and endlessly compelling person. He’s also terrifying and, for most of the film, sympathetic.
In fact, that sympathy is where much of the film’s fear comes from. This is the Joker. We should not like this person. And yet, the movie tricks us into doing that time and time again. We frequently see things happening that aren’t actually happening. Information is given that isn’t quite accurate. Arthur’s point of view is mostly unreliable. And so the film swings you between sympathy and pity or humor and awkwardness, sometimes in a single shot. Not knowing what to believe and how to feel is one of the film’s most interesting and strongest assets.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the film is Phoenix’s performance, which includes one of the best physical and mental transformations he’s done in his illustrious career. Phoenix takes Arthur everywhere, best represented by a condition where he laughs when he’s not supposed to. It makes for some terribly uncomfortable moments that personify him very acutely. We want to love Arthur. We want to cheer for him. Maybe we even do at times. But we cannot. The title of the movie tells you where this is going, and it’s nowhere good.
Phillips, best known for comedies like Old School and The Hangover trilogy, is making his most complex movie yet with Joker. And though he co-wrote the movie with Scott Silver (The Fighter, 8 Mile) that lack of dramatic experience shows. Joker never seems to have a dominant message. The goal is clear, explain who the Joker is, but beyond that, the movie is chock full of so many themes at so many different times it’ll leave your head spinning.
Some of the film is about the working-class rising up against the upper class. Some of it is about abuse and its impact on mental development. Other parts are about bullying, gun control, the news media, really, almost any and everything. If you choose to look at it in a certain way, Joker is a man who unknowingly incites violence and hatred and becomes a leader because of those warped ideas. Sound familiar? Despite being set almost 40 years in the past. Joker is such a timely, malleable movie that almost anything you want to read into it would be an equally valid interpretation. However, we never know what Phillips is trying to say among all these different messages.
Which, appropriately, is both the best and worst thing about the film. You walk out of it bursting at the seams with discussion points. What was real? Was that intended? Why did that happen? And yet, if a movie is about everything, it almost becomes about nothing. There’s no real cohesion to what it is, or isn’t, trying to say. No point or message prevalent above all the others. The subtext feels largely garbled and at odds, with only Arthur’s character arc to hold everything together. And even then, because he’s such a complex character, it’s a little all over the map.
With Arthur’s journey to becoming Joker as the main narrative drive of the film, the supporting characters mostly take a back seat. Few, if any, have more than 10 minutes of screen time in the film. That goes for characters played by Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Marc Maron, Brian Tyree Henry, and others. For some, it’s even less than that. Their minor inclusions sometimes work to boost the film up but also can drag it down because we want to see more of their stories.
It’s always about Arthur, and yet, Joker doesn’t really have a point of view on how we should feel about him at the end. Phillips doesn’t tip his hand one way or the other, leaving that sentiment almost entirely up to the audience, which in this day and age, is almost irresponsible. Most of the violence is saved until later in the film and its sporadic, yet intense, depiction is another way the director harkens back to the films of the past. Phillips uses using jarring sounds and quick editing, à la Martin Scorsese, to amplify the most violent moments. Yet, the intended shock value is slightly offset by the film’s insinuation that Arthur is, even partially, justified. Others characters are threatening him. They’re bullying him. What choice does he have but to retaliate with a vengeance?
That underdog, pathetic, anti-hero perspective doesn’t have much balance the other way. Arthur gets positive reinforcement, first from the public, later in the form of self-discovery, through his violence. As a result, you get the dangerous sense that some could walk out of Joker cheering for his triumphs instead of feeling disgusted by them. There’s no road map to solidify a point of view. No easy strings to grasp on to say “This is bad” other than the external knowledge that “The Joker is a comic book villain.” I wish there was. Phillips isn’t asking easy questions with the movie, which makes it interesting, but the commercial, comic book hook mostly feels at odd with that level of ambition. Maybe Joker is the movie that opens up a wider audience to more complex films, but considering the pessimistic world Joker reflects on us, probably not.
One way Phillips kind of comments on the violence is through filmmaking juxtaposition. Visually, Joker is sumptuous, thanks in large part to the cinematography by Lawrence Sher and costumes by Mark Bridges. Each gives the film a grounded realism as Arthur walks through a building or drives through a tunnel, as well as a hint of mania when he puts on that dark red suit or striking white face make-up. As the film goes on, each ends up feeling like they were crafted for the sole purpose of making the few instances of visceral violence that much more disturbing when they happen.
Even the comic book connections in the film fall into this murky category, though. For a movie that’s so dead set on being its own standalone thing, it sure goes out of the way to leave fans with threads that could spin off into other movies. For some, that’ll be very exciting, but I felt it did Joker a disservice. The movie doesn’t feel like we should want to see what’s next. We shouldn’t want to see this character commanding an army and fighting Batman. He’s too human. Too broken. That scenario too fantastic and unrealistic for this world. And yet the movie tries to balance all of those things together, unfocusing several narrative threads that would have been stronger on their own.
Then again, it’s important to remember the movie is called Joker. The Waynes are characters. Gotham City is the setting. And so, making a movie that has such a wild identity crisis could be exactly the point of the whole thing. Maybe it should be confusing. It shouldn’t have a point. Or maybe it should elicit emotional responses, for better or worse, and that’s it.
Historically, the Joker character has been impossible to pin down. So it’s oddly fitting that his movie is too. Is the movie powerful and provocative? Yes. A little frustrating and unclear? Also yes. Are all of those things appropriate to the character? Absolutely. Maybe making Joker feel so unlike our usual comic book films, so potentially polarizing, so gutturally shocking, is exactly the right way to make a Joker movie. It’s just like him. Confused, misunderstood, but probably very clear from his own warped point of view.
Joker had its world premiere this weekend at the Venice Film Festival. It opens in the United States on October 4.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.