No One’s Laughing Anymore – Joker Review
The journey for Joker has been one of ups and downs. Initially mocked as overly self-important from a director that was best known for delivering dumb but audience pleasing comedy with The Hangover series, it was shown to rapturous acclaim when it hit the festival circuit. As the release came closer though, a backlash emerged, as it was accused of encouraging violence amongst bitter white loners who feel the wave of empowerment for minority groups has left them behind. The Joker was feared to become a symbol of an unleashed, narcissistic rage. No doubt, the Joker, as portrayed here by Joaquin Phoenix, would find the idea hysterical.
The film opens with Arthur Fleck putting on a mask. A painted clown mask, as he prepares to do a job advertising a closing down store. As the giant title Joker appears on the screen, Arthur has been smacked around the head with an advertising sign and beaten to the ground by a group of teenagers. This opening spells out Arthur’s live, as we go on to see for the opening half an hour or so, a character whose every attempt to achieve something is responded to by the world beating him back down again. Left only with his ill mother and his fellow clowns that have little time for him, Arthur is depicted as living a rather empty existence. Further shunning from the world comes in the form of a condition he has had for as long as he can remember where he uncontrollably laughs at the most inopportune moments. His mask is often not voluntary, as he regularly attempts to withhold this screeching cackle of a laugh, shouting out a joy as inside he feels mostly hatred for the world around him.
It isn’t too long until Arthur commits a violent act, initially out of self-defence, but ultimately for revenge, by killing three young Wall Street men (by coincidence, Gotham also apparently has a Wall Street). This sparks a series of riots and fears of copy cat violence across the city. All the while, Arthur’s life unravels even further.
Those early evaluations of the film appearing overly self-important, are not diminished when we see the film as a whole. Much like Arthur’s initially silent, but ultimately violent cries to be acknowledged, Joker demands to be looked at. This comes from the regularly beautiful cinematography, the eye-catching costume and make-up design, and, yes, the stunning performance from Phoenix. Arthur is on screen for pretty much the entirety of the film and just as the camera can barely move away from his performance, we can barely take our eyes of it. Ironically, the physicality is reminiscent of the performance of one-time Caped Crusader, Christian Bale, in The Machinist, with bones causing Phoenix’s flesh to protrude in inhuman ways. We also regularly see him gracefully dancing to a tune that only he can hear.
To what end does all this serve though? For a film that clearly has a lot of artistry and is not afraid to put it front and centre, Joker has very little to really say about the world this character inhabits. Take, for example, the period setting. Rather than having a modern setting, the decision has been made to place this in some kind of nebulous era. It mostly resembles the 70s, but this feels more like an unsubtle nod to the films that have clearly inspired its tale, the two Martin Scorsese masterpieces Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. The time period is not particularly used for any other reason than to invoke those films, not fitting in with the mythology of the modern Batman films, nor of the original comics. There is no real comment about the depicted period either, with the main plot of growing resentment around bankers and high-flying businessmen feeling more relevant to about 10 years ago than 50. All it does is to remind us of those other films and feel like they are attempting to put this in the same category as them; an attempt that it just can’t achieve.
Its placing within the Batman universe also feels like a straitjacket for it. As the ties to the well-known Batman mythology become stronger, it increasingly loses its way. My heart sank as Arthur stood outside Wayne Manor, knowing full well where the final moments would likely lead. It fortunately didn’t have the Joker play a crucial role in the inevitable event, but it still felt completely unnecessary (not to mention that it doesn’t make much sense that this Joker would end up battling Batman 30 or so years later, although that is a sequel I would pay to see!) The more it steered clear of those stories, the better the film was and it felt like it was much more comfortable being its own thing.
I think it is also worth mentioning the really fantastic score that is used throughout. Composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, the melancholic use of strings reverberates through scenes. As mentioned we often see Arthur dancing to this music that only him and us can hear and the powerful, soulful quality that can be heard is one of the best ways the film is able to create some kind of sympathy for Arthur. For me, almost as much as Phoenix, the music, including the selection of songs, was the highlight of the film and I have no doubt it will be considered a contender come awards season.
In the end, the film exists in the fantasies of Arthur Fleck. All the we see is through his eyes and his eyes alone. He is a completely unreliable narrator, more often than the moment it overtly shows us this and almost certainly during the final moments. As result, the film says little more beyond what Arthur wants us to see. It is a simple tale of a desire to be acknowledged and to have some power over the people and the world around us, but fails to scratch much more beneath the surface than that. Its most powerful argument though is that it shouldn’t only be the superheroes that get an origin story. For that, it could certainly be called a triumph and I hope we get to see more of that in the future.