Tears of a clown: Joker review

Joker, like the terrified, ferocious clown whose travails and transformation it tracks, is all about disharmony: a character who is not at ease with the world or himself, whose ambitions are not matched by his abilities, becoming a monster and bringing further chaos to an already riven city.

Of course humour is very often founded on disharmony too, on the clash between a setup and a punch line, and in some ways the entire film of director Todd Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver is a gigantic, nearly pitch-black gag, turning on the irony that a basically decent man who’s (by conventional measures) a failure in life can become a success, first through incompetence and then through malice.

But as well as extracting sympathy for a character generally regarded as an extreme villain, there are subtler currents of unease and unrest running through Joker, a film which never lets the audience slot it into a convenient box. It deals with a character from the DC Universe but is emphatically not an established part of that universe (and although the Joker has had origin stories before, including one as a failed comedian in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s book Batman: The Killing Joke of 1988, it’s surely unnecessary to try to link this movie to other works in specifics).

It is set fairly precisely in 1981 (we can tell from movie posters) yet there are things that do not seem to belong to that year (the older-looking police cars and other posters, for example), in much the same way that Gotham City is so close to, but not, New York.

It’s weirdly dependent on other movies, too: while not part of a universe, it would still have far less resonance if we weren’t already familiar with what the Joker will do long after the end credits. And then there are its own references to films beyond the Batman-related obvious, which are disquieting because they are so unexpected to anyone who thought they were going to see just a superhero movie: those allusions that nearly every writer has pointed out, to Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Taxi Driver.

Reading too much into these is probably a mistake. The idea of an unfunny, dysfunctional comic turning violent is so detailed that any film featuring such a figure couldn’t help appearing to resemble The King of Comedy. And Joaquin Phoenix’s title character here differs from Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle in a critical respect: the nascent Joker’s outrage at society is directed at rudeness, at personal hurt, not at immorality, which he doesn’t seem to care about. But still, the fact that Joker has these clear connections to a kind of film so far removed from the comic-based genre is itself a disharmony. It’s as if Aquaman suddenly started quoting from Chinatown.

Most of all, we never know quite what to make of the character: is he mad, or bad, or both? Does he cross over from one to the other, and if so when? Is it when he clumsily dons his full murderous greasepaint for the first time; has the gentler, sweetly aspiring if completely untalented man been taken over by the role? Or was he calculating long before? Is the clown mask just a mask, or is it an identity? The movie asks these questions, and doesn’t answer them; perhaps it’s even saying there is no answer, and the Joker is just an example of random bad stuff that happens, an inexplicable phenomenon.

True, there is some attempt to medicalise his state of mind, but this too may be a distraction. He’s portrayed as suffering from some kind of condition, possibly pseudobulbar affect, which causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate moments (and the laughter, with high dramatic convenience, sometimes to segue into tears). He has a fantasy about friendship with a woman, which raises the question of how much else might be merely his fantasy. And there’s an issue made about budget cuts depriving him of medication.

But Joker is, plainly, not “just” a film about mental illness; the extremeness and abruptness of the character’s transformation, when he puts on the greasepaint prior to appearing on TV for his climactic interview with Robert De Niro, is of more mythic scale.

Nothing he does really serves his ends in any constructive way, and that’s doubtless another thing that has made the movie disturbing to so many. We can put up, filmically, with the foullest serial killer or ugliest dictator if there’s some purpose, however twisted,to their loathesomeness.But with Phoenix’s Joker, it isn’t until very near the end of the movie — where he seems to realise he might have a future as some kind of master of anarchy — that there’s any motive to him beyond the lashing-out of emotional desperation.

This has perhaps touched more nerves than anything else in the movie, and Joker has been accused of validating, even potentially encouraging the kind of vengeful, undirected violence that we see from school shooters. But it’s a tenuous argument; the film is at most explanatory, hardly justificatory.

More interesting, in any case, is the possibility that the Joker’s metamorphosis might be a parallel to the radicalisation of terrorists. By the end the clown masks have become political symbols for the crowds dissatisfied with Gotham’s government, and there’s the faintest hint at the film’s conclusion that Phoenix could now be poised to lead them.

And while it’s adamantly to be hoped that there isn’t a Joker sequel — it’s difficult to see how that could be anything more than yet another Batman movie, unless of course it departed far from the established narrative — it’s easy to imagine one that pursues this line of thought.

Most of these are things that strike one long after leaving the cinema, of course. While you’re in the dark, you’re too absorbed by Phoenix’s compelling, contorted performance to be worrying much about what it means. Almost constantly present on-screen, he hogs every scene, but without undermining other performers; it’s not that they don’t get space to act, it’s that Phoenix seems to exist in a different, more glaring world than theirs; good or bad, they are almost always calm and rational, he is rarely either.

He is less overtly evil than Jack Nicholson’s Joker (though admittedly the character in the Tim Burton movie had had longer to perfect his malevolence; here, we only see the very beginning of his reign) and closer to Heath Ledger’s nihilism. Bony, bruised, slowly tipping from tentative to driven, clumsy with the greasepaint when he first dons it but given immense confidence by his mask, he recalls Daniel Day-Lewis more than any other actor. There are some resemblances to Phoenix’s performance in You Were Never Really Here but if that was decidedly slow-burn, this is a growing smoulder that becomes white-hot.

Also impressive are De Niro, who mocks Phoenix’s comedic ineptness (in essentially the role that Jerry Lewis played to De Niro’s own wannabe comedian in The King of Comedy); Frances Cooper, never less than excellent even if becoming a little typecast, as the Joker’s mother; and Brett Cullen, another always-reliable performer, as Batman-to-be’s father Thomas Wayne. (Cullen also appeared in a small role in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, though I don’t think there is any deep meaning intended in the recasting.)

The titular figure and the Gotham City context created by production designer Mark Friedberg are handled powerfully by Phillips and director of photography Lawrence Sher. The Joker’s principal feature is his face, of course, and this is emphasised by extensive use of close-ups, making the most of Phoenix’s shifting smiles and frowns. Gotham, meanwhile, is a beautifully realised, run-down alternative-New-York, squalid and corrupt enough that we can believe it produces both the disenfranchised Joker and the ruthless Thomas Wayne, but never overdone to a degree that would endanger plausibility. One particularly fine shot shows a refuse-filled alley in the foreground, a Ferris wheel in the background, suggesting how the pursuit of personal amusement — which will eventually dominate the character — remains a vital force even amid the privation.

All this is supported by a strong score from Hildur Guðnadóttir (who recently made an outstanding contribution to the Chernobyl TV series, though I was less thrilled by her music for Sicario 2: Soldado). It’s built around very short string motifs, supplemented by skilful use of percussion and (at the end) brass; occasionally developed into longer melodic lines but never becoming truly complex, these motifs are sometimes stated openly, sometimes scratchily deranged, providing a pointed parallel to the conflicts within the Joker between normal aspirations and insane ones. The original score is complemented, too, by a selection of well-chosen songs — most notably the Frank Sinatra version of That’s Life, with its apposite “stompin’ on a dream” lyric.

Joker does not completely work. Most importantly, it is too much propelled by Phoenix, and it’s only his mesmerising performance that distracts us from some one-dimensionality in other characters and some thematic weaknesses.

(For example, it’s implied that Thomas Wayne, father of the young Bruce Wayne, is to be blamed for depriving Arthur Fleck, Joker-to-be, of his medication; but Wayne has not yet been elected to civic office, so he has no control over Gotham’s health budgets. Indeed, despite various allegations concerning Wayne’s treatment of the Joker’s mother, it’s perfectly plausible on the evidence presented that he is nothing worse than somewhat arrogant, and not responsible at all for Phoenix/Fleck’s predicament. Possibly this is intended as another nice ambiguity, but it goes to the heart of whether the Joker is at all justified in his outrage, or simply deluded, and it may be a bit of a cheat for the film-makers to leave it unresolved.)

But it’s undeniable that it’s intoxicating while it lasts, and in a different way beyond, even if much of it is down to a single performer. And certainly, some of the grumbling (a reaction to over-praise elsewhere, perhaps) has been unfair.

A.O. Scott in The New York Times described it as “besotted with the notion of its own audacity” — true, but isn’t it true of so many movies now, including so many far lesser ones? — before going on to say that it took this stance “as if willful unpleasantness were a form of artistic courage”. That point is harder to accept; if there is actual artistic courage here as opposed to originality (and I’m not convinced) it surely lies more in the decision to put a semi-sympathetic human face on evil than in any wanton “unpleasantness”, which in any case is no more than the grim tale demands.

The critic of The Atlantic, meanwhile, called Joker “pompous” and a caricature of mental illness, to which one can only respond that it is, for all that it’s atypical, still a comic-book movie. What do you expect?

What ultimately does work in Joker is its contradictions. The story is utterly fantastic, yet grounded in something not very far from reality. We don’t know how seriously to take it; we can’t quite shrug it off as impossible, and yet we’re aware that if we respond to it as credible we’re accepting a very strange world indeed. It’s gritty fantasy, something as seemingly oxymoronic as unfunny comedy, and while we can’t stop trying to make sense of it, of figuring out exactly what happened to Arthur Fleck, there very possibly isn’t any sense to be had.

And that dilemma stays with you, even longer than the clown get-up.

Originally published at https://www.quora.com.

Barnaby is a journalist based in Suffolk, UK. By day he covers science and public policy; by night, film and classical music. He has also been a cinema manager.