Joker (2019) Todd Phillips - Movie Review
Joker (2019) Director: Todd Phillips Writers: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver (written by) Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson (based on characters created by) Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Carrie Louise Putrello, Dante Pereira-Olson, Douglas Hodge, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Josh Pais, Leigh Gill, Sharon Washington, Runtime: 122 min Rated: 14A (Canada) 13+ (Quebec) MPAA rating R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains some spoilers)
It’s the early 1980s. A garbage strike fills the city with ‘super’ rats. A general economic downturn breeds civil unrest. This is where we meet Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Joker chronicles his personal psychological disintegration as he simultaneously achieves notoriety and infamy from a world that otherwise would hardly notice him. Living with his codependent mother, working as a clown for hire, and struggling to become a stand-up comedian, the life of naïve and fragile Fleck spirals out of control as painful truths about his past surface and he endures a barrage of public indignities and failures. After Fleck loses his social worker and prescription assistance due to government program cutbacks, a fellow rent-a-clown, Randall (Glenn Fleshler), lends him a handgun which eventually results in Fleck’s unemployment. As he goes off his many medications Fleck becomes increasingly violent and delusional. With everything and almost everyone set against him Fleck breaks down piece by piece until the little boy his mother said was meant “to bring laughter and joy to the world,” instead brings homicide and social unrest. Any optimism the character had in the first act of the film evaporates as he turns more and more in on himself and against the world around him.
Writer/director Todd Phillips’ film about the miserable and pitiable Arthur Fleck’s transformation into a homicidal public menace is an origin story of the Joker, the perennial villain and arch nemesis of Gotham City’s caped crusader Batman; however this is not a conventional comic book action film. This Joker is a psychological drama opting for a high degree realism which shares more with films like Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (2004) or Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) than it does with any of the recent DC or MARVEL films.
The character, who first appeared in the debut issue of Batman Vol. 1 #1 (1940), has gone though many variations over the years ranging from the quirky offbeat Cesar Romero iteration in the Zap! Pow! screw-ball comedic TV Batman series (1966-1968) to the disturbingly more sinister vision of the psychotic clown found in Alan Moore’s one-shot graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988 - made into an animated film by Sam Liu in 2016 where the Joker was voiced by Mark Hamill). This dark Joker gave rise to subsequent increasingly off-kilter portrayals like Jack Nicholson’s volatile criminal version in Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance of a nihilistic Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). The attempt to go darker and darker with the character doesn’t always work as evidenced by the lukewarm response to Jared Leto’s cruel grill-wearing street-gang-tattooed Joker in David Ayer's Suicide Squad (2016). However, in each case the Joker—for nearly 80 years—has clearly been a character dealing from the bottom of the deck.
Audiences familiar with director Phillips will likely know him from his R-rated comedies like the mad-cap middle-aged frat-house comedy Old School (2003) starring Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Ferrell or his bachelor-party-gone-wrong comedy trilogy The Hangover (2009, 2011, 2013) starring Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms. It might seem strange that a comedy director would make a film like Joker but considering that much of comedy is based on keen careful observation of human nature and the oddities, tragedies, and miseries of life and society, these are qualities necessary to make a film like Joker which includes a fair amount of social commentary in the midst of its detailed character study. Writer/director Woody Allen includes two insightful comments in his film Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) which apply well to Joker “comedy is tragedy plus time,” and “if it bends it’s funny, if it breaks it’s not funny.” Phillips largely portrays Fleck as a man living in the moment. At a couple key points when he does reflect on his life he says, “I thought my life was a tragedy but then I learned it was a comedy.” Even as this idea dawns on Fleck, he is a character continually struggling to understand what comedy truly is even taking detailed notes about what makes people laugh as he hones his stand-up routine. Fleck’s challenge to grasp social cues is further complicated by a condition known as pseudo-bulbar affect (PBA) characterised by episodes of sudden uncontrollable inappropriate laughing or crying often aggravated by stressful situations. In awkward public moments Fleck has a laminated card he hands out that says “Forgive my laughter, I have a brain injury.” Phillips is not simply bending Fleck’s character under the repeated stressful and sometimes abusive situations, rather he is breaking Fleck bit by bit, over and over again. St. Paul writes about hardships in the Christian life, saying “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,” (Romans 5:3–4). In the end the put-upon and embittered character Phillips produces in Joker is one without hope, filled with rage and a growing sense of entitlement. This transformation is gradual but striking and there is nothing funny about it.
What first appears to be Phillips’ fresh and original approach to the character of the Joker will be recognized by film buffs as an homage to two early works of filmmaker Martin Scorsese: The King of Comedy (1982) and Taxi Driver (1976). In The King of Comedy Robert De Niro plays an un-heroic schmuck Rupert Pupkin— a self aggrandizing delusional man living with his mother in New York City struggling to be a stand up comedian who becomes embroiled in a plot to kidnap a talk show host in a desperate bid for public attention even if it’s only for a day. As Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, De Niro is an obsessive marginalized man falling through the cracks of society as he descends into paranoia and violence. In Joker De Niro flips his The King of Comedy role to play the late night TV talk show host Murray Franklin exploiting Fleck’s social awkwardness for laughs. While appearing on live TV the last thing Franklin hears is Fleck’s condemnation, “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you [f@%#1n’] deserve!” For Fleck this indictment is leveled not just at the personally disappointing Franklin, who he had imagined to be a kind of father figure, but also against the studio audience, those watching at home, the whole city of Gotham, philanthropist and industrialist Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) father of the young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) his future rival Batman, and perhaps the whole world.
Take the previously mentioned Scorsese films, add elements from the equally challenging Michael Douglas film Falling Down (1993), blend them with the Fleck/Joker character and the bones holding together Phillips’ Joker present themselves as part of a larger and longer conversation about the nature of folk anti-heroes in film. In the eyes of some people the Joker character has shifted from simple villain to complex folk anti-hero becoming enshrined alongside Taxi Driver (1976) Travis Bickle, or the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing V (Hugo Weaving) in James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta (2005). Hollywood has a long history of presenting criminals—both real and fictional—in a sympathetic light in bio pics like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, or even earlier in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) starring James Cagney or in Sidney Lumet's bank-heist-gone-wrong film Dog Day Afternoon (1975) starring Al Pacino as Sonny.
Concerns that Phillips’ rendition of the Joker may incite or encourage troubled individuals who feel disenfranchised by society towards similar acts of violence depicted in the film are not entirely unwarranted. In 2012 during a screening of Nolan’s Batman film The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado just such a tragic event occurred resulting in 12 deaths and the injury of some 70 filmgoers. Even if the 2012 Aurora shooter was not directly influenced by the character of the Joker the shooter was certainly an individual suffering from mental illness and Phillips’ Joker considers the same nature vs. nurture questions that surface when paranoid individuals embrace rage and violence against others. As a result some venues exercised caution and added security at some early screening of Joker. It might also be good to remember that similar concerns about potential acts of violence emerged recently during the limited theatrical release of the Chuck Konzelman/Cary Solomon film Unplanned (2019) the true story of Abby Johnson a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic director who had a change of heart and became a pro-life advocate. Will anti-social people with anarchist obsessions or individuals with an involuntary celibate (incel) paranoid personality find a personal hero in Joaquin Phoenix’s rendition of the Joker? That remains to be seen. Regardless of whether these fears materialize, individuals struggling with these dark temptations likely don’t require a Hollywood film to convince them to act on their dark thoughts; sin can arise out of a person without external influences (Matthew 15:18-19). That said there will be people whose mental state will not be helped by watching this film.
Christians are free to see this movie just as they are free to see any of the films cited in this review but let’s be clear: this review is not a recommendation to see Joker nor is it an endorsement of the film. In many ways this is a cynical film revelling in its macabre conclusion. Yet as mentioned before, Joker is now part of a larger conversation and some Christians will simply want to know what the film is about to remain part of the conversation when talking to friends, neighbours, and family. The hope is that a review like this will provide some insight into the film’s nature and content for those who have watched the film as well those who are just curious about it.
Christian viewers will want to be careful when considering the character of Arthur Fleck. Phillips plays on the audience’s innate desire to see underdog and downtrodden characters succeed especially when Fleck is striving to be a stand-up comedian. And when Fleck is being abused and begins losing his way, Christian viewers will empathetically want him to receive the help he desperately needs. These feelings of goodwill that come from the heart of the Christian viewer may also be felt by non-religious viewers who simply hate seeing someone fall through the cracks of the social safety net. Additionally, these feelings along with Phoenix’s nuanced and masterful performance may colour the viewer’s perception of the character painting Fleck as sympathetic. However by the end of the film it is clear Fleck is not a character warranting such an assessment. Joker —subtly at first then not so subtly in the end— plays the “sympathy for the devil” card and that card is the real joker dealt from the deck by Phillips.
Joker is structured in a criss-cross pattern as the put-upon Arthur Fleck achieves the fame he desires —the very fame he seeks comes at the expense of his mental state. He begins as a fragile but stable nobody and ends as an infamous public menace. The film concludes amidst complete social chaos with a riotous clown-masked crowd of protestors nudged along and entangled in the story of this sad character terrorizing the streets of Gotham city. Read through a biblical lens Joker becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of seeking after the vanities of fame and the dangers inherent in embracing bitterness and anger. There are dozens of scriptural passages that speak to a contrasting Christian approach to the various pitfalls in which Fleck finds himself. One comes from St. Paul when he writes, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31–32). Fleck displays an inability to forgive his equally troubled mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), or the insolent Thomas Wayne, or his vindictive co-worker Randall. Christian viewers will find no encouragement in the character of the Joker and why would they? If anything Joker can be read as a call to be more caring for the needs of the truly marginalized and vulnerable in cities, towns and communities around the world.
It’s also good to remember that Philips utilizes juxtaposition as a technique to make his audience feel uneasy. The majority of viewers have an expectation of where the story is going because they are aware of other versions of the Joker origin story. Red herrings like Fleck’s note in his joke book “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life,” make viewers worry that Fleck will harm himself and the emphasis on smiling when there is nothing to smile about creates its own tension. Because of his brain injury it’s implied that Fleck only mimics many of the expressions of emotions he sees in others making him a rather calculating character at times even rehearsing simple conversations. Keeping all that in mind, Phillips’ choice to incorporate Jimmy Durante’s big band rendition of John Turner’s and Geoffrey Parsons’ song Smile with lyrics like “Smile though your heart is achin', Smile, even though it's breakin', When there are are clouds in the sky You'll get by... If you smile Through your fear and sorrow Smile, And maybe tomorrow You'll see the sun come shinin' through, For you,” only increases the viewer’s sense of dread taking full advantage of every shred of dramatic irony because viewers are anticipating that the sun won’t actually come shining through for Fleck.
The film is brilliant in its execution and can be appreciated for its writing and its mesmerizing performances which may even garner award nominations. Even so, Joker is a grim and unpleasant film. There is no joy in watching a man being beaten down until he becomes the Joker but neither should there be.