October 2019

Arts & Letters

No one’s laughing now: Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

By Shane Danielsen
A gripping psychological study of psychosis offers a surprising change of pace in the superhero genre

So there’s this guy. Solitary, a bit of a misfit. Shares a flat with his ailing mother, in a city rapidly descending into chaos. Like all of us, he nurtures hopes, has things in his life he’d like to achieve – a successful career, someone to love. But even these modest dreams are so remote as to seem ludicrous. He tries in vain to make his therapist understand (“You just ask the same questions every week: ‘How’s your job?’ ‘Are you having any negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts”), but she has no answers either. Nothing changes, or seems likely to.

Until one day, a chance encounter shows him another way. He dons a costume, devises a new identity…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Clearly, we’re going to be bombarded with superhero movies from now until the extinction of humanity – that is, for about the next 50 years. The reasons for this are at once practical (digital effects have enabled and encouraged a particular kind of storytelling), social (ours is an ever-more juvenile culture, and these, for better or worse, are its myths) and, above all, financial. With their subordination of dialogue to action, and their rollout potential as global, brand-driven “events”, these films play as well in Mumbai and Guangzhou and Lagos as they do in London or New York. And studios, bless them, tend to like that sort of thing.

Given this fact, the question then becomes: is there the possibility of making personal work within this genre? To be subversive, idiosyncratic? It’s not impossible: James Gunn managed it with the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which, Marvel credentials aside, is very much a James Gunn movie. Hell, even Zach Snyder did it with his titanically awful Man of Steel: the auteur as 14-year-old Objectivist. But for the most part, a deadening sameness prevails. Try to find a spark of life in the assembly-line proficiency of Ant-Man and the Wasp or Justice League.

Todd Phillips, though, has pulled it off. Destined to be one of the most divisive movies of the year, Joker is something wholly unexpected – a downbeat, occasionally confused but mostly gripping study of psychosis on both a personal and a societal level. Loosely inspired by Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel The Killing Joke, it dives deep into the Batman mythos to comment on the state of contemporary America. As such, it will be both adored and reviled – and only sometimes for the right reasons. 

From the opening seconds, and the use of Saul Bass’s “modular” 1972 Warner Bros logo instead of the familiar Warner’s shield, it’s clear that, stylistically, this is a film in conversation with a particular moment in American cinema. Its vision of Gotham as a lawless, rat-infested hellhole chimes with the tone of New York City in the 1970s: the power blackouts, the random killings, the breakdown of social services. Even its first action sequence – a frenzied chase through downtown – seems inspired by a film from that period: Peter Hyams’ 1974 cop thriller Busting.

But by far its most obvious borrowings are from Scorsese – specifically from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, two Robert De Niro vehicles about damaged outsiders yearning to leave their mark on a society that has ignored them. It’s a debt Phillips’ film makes clear by casting that actor here, as a TV talk-show host – the very job his King of Comedy character, Rupert Pupkin, longed for. Rupert, it seems, has finally passed through the screen and into the spotlight; what has replaced him, in the darkness on the other side, is far, far worse.

When Joker was announced, back in 2017, no one expected much. DC Comics fanboys were suspicious. (A Batman story without Batman? From the guy who made The Hangover?) Industry pundits were sceptical. (Budgeted at “just” US$55 million, how could it hope to deliver the scale associated with superhero movies?) Its first trailer looked intriguing, but as we’ve learnt, that’s no guarantee of anything. 

Also… you know… Heath Ledger. Not exactly a small pair of boots to fill.

But then it screened at the Venice Film Festival, and most critics (myself included) were astonished; that night, at its official premiere, it earned a nearly 10-minute standing ovation. And then, a week later, it won the Golden Lion for Best Film, joining the ranks of Last Year in Marienbad and Ivan’s Childhood and Three Colours Blue. We’d expected a joke, another in the string of misfires that have characterised DC’s mostly sub-par movie universe. But to quote the man in the makeup, “No one’s laughing now.”

In a way it makes sense: a superhero film, after all, is only as good as its villain – something those first Avengers films, in particular, didn’t seem to comprehend, pitting their heroes against anonymous clouds of pixels. If The Dark Knight remains the best comic-book adaptation to date – and it does – that’s mostly because Ledger gives one of the greatest film performances of the past quarter-century; every time I watch him in it I find new things to admire, new little shadings and inflections. 

But his Joker is also something other than human – less a character than a phenomenon, a channel through which chaos might flood the world. His real name, where he came from – none of this is important (as the character himself more or less acknowledges, with his multiple, contradictory accounts of how he got his facial scars). All that matters, ultimately, is that he is.

Phillips’ Joker is the opposite: an origin story. And so he and star Joaquin Phoenix burrow deep into the character of one Arthur Fleck, aspiring stand-up and part-time children’s clown, the saddest of Pagliaccis. They dig into the psyche of this seemingly insignificant man, into his loneliness, paranoia, self-loathing and rage, and emerge with a study of a decent, severely disturbed individual on his way to becoming a monster: Joker avant le deluge

As if his life were not depressing enough, Fleck suffers from pseudobulbar affect, a neurological condition that subjects him to fits of sudden, uncontrollable laughter, and so strenuously does Phoenix execute these convulsions, one is never quite sure whether he’s laughing or crying. It’s typical of the bruising physicality of his performance (the actor shed 24 kilograms for the role, and without his shirt, contorted in front of his bedroom mirror, looks like something drawn by Egon Schiele), and part of the pleasure of this film is watching how its star’s body language alters over the course of the narrative, as Fleck first defines and then fully inhabits a space of his own. Initially circumscribed, his gestures become grander, more florid; his voice deepens. Nervy and recessive at first, he achieves, in the film’s final moments, a sovereign stillness. The object, at last, of every gaze.

But that attention is itself problematic. And so, mere hours after the first raves for Phillips’ achievement came the inevitable backlash. Not merely a bad film, these critics alleged, Joker was a dangerous one: a rallying cry for incels and Proud Boys and every wretched strain of angry white dude who might see himself reflected in its dirty mirror. (According to IndieWire, the film speaks “to the people in our world who are predisposed to think of Arthur as a role model: lonely, creatively impotent white men who are drawn to hateful ideologies because of the angry communities that foment around them.”)

Let’s pause to acknowledge the quite staggering elitism of this critique. The unspoken belief that, while we understand this film perfectly well, being the educated, sophisticated viewers that we are, the masses – those “creatively impotent” drones the writer encounters whenever he boldly ventures beyond Brooklyn – might not. They may get the wrong message, might draw the wrong conclusions. Breathtaking in its arrogance, it positions these liberal critics alongside the kind of right-wingers who blame video games for gun violence.

In fact, one of the remarkable things about Joker is precisely its slipperiness. It refuses to tell you where to stand or how to feel, and it doesn’t take a single position itself. On the contrary, it keeps shifting and realigning – much like its protagonist, who goes from loser to outcast to victim to aggressor, yet is never exclusively any one of these things at any one time. When Fleck commits his most public act of violence, he’s also arguing a moral case – and happens, up until the very moment he crosses the line, to be in the right. 

Also, I’m not convinced that the film exalts its subject, or his methods, at all – unless, of course, you happen to believe that the overthrow of Gotham’s elite by gangs of murderous, mask-wearing vigilantes constitutes an improvement. The revolution the film depicts is not the victory of The People against the One Per Cent; it’s a howling mob lashing out against the rule of law, and is depicted as such, in scenes of anarchy, confusion and violence. In fact, one key moment here – of a hoodlum in a Joker mask sitting in the back of a yellow cab, and Phoenix/Fleck smiling slightly as he sees him go by – suggested to me nothing so much as Osama bin Laden, watching with satisfaction as his agents, inculcated with his madness, go forth into the world.

Is Joker a great movie? No. But it is audacious and provocative and thrilling, all qualities in short supply among Hollywood releases. Its direction is muscular and assured (two sequences aboard subway trains – one packed with commuters, the other unnervingly empty – are especially well executed), and its craftsmanship immaculate. Special mention should also be made of the grimy, dark-hued cinematography of Lawrence Sher, Phillips’ collaborator on the Hangover films, and the droning, majestic music of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who also scored HBO’s superb Chernobyl. Though set in the early 1980s, it’s a film for right now, with all the difficulty and contradictions that statement entails. It has no answers for what has befallen us; it simply holds up a mirror and says, look. And this, too, is the purpose of art.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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