This is a difficult film to assess because it’s not clear what it is trying to achieve. Is it a study of mental decline and how there are never enough resources to deal with it? Is it an origin story for a well -known comic book character? Is it a serious art film sneaking into the mainstream under a populist masthead? Is it a gratuitously violent movie with little soul? Is it a vehicle for a performance which tilts knowingly for Oscar glory? Well it is all of these things at various points but never really coalesces into a particular direction. As for just being entertainment it is simply not a film anyone could surely enjoy in that way. In case you hadn’t twigged the title is ironic- there’s not a single laugh in it.
Spoilers past this point
It’s the early 1980s and Gotham has been hit badly by the economic downturn with mass unemployment and tension bubbling on the streets as the many watch the relatively few earn stupendous amounts of money and are starting to resent it. Arthur Fleck lives in a dingy apartment, cares for his mentally ill mother and works as a clown for hire. He also has a condition that causes him to laugh inappropriately like a hyena at moments of stress. At one point he states that he’s never had a happy day in his life. The only think he does seem to like is a late night chat show hosted by Murray Franklin which he imagines he might be on one day
The early section promises much. After Arthur is mugged by some kids and then set up by his boss it sparks a violent reaction to the sight of three young city traders harassing people on a late night subway train. The implications of this incident run through the film like water flooding a building as the murders become a cause celebre for both sides of the rich versus poor divisions in the city. This would be a strong enough premise to build a film on and each time it comes to the surface Joker works a treat. Arthur’s disassociation from his own crimes- which mount as the film progresses- combined with the febrile atmosphere that threatens riots and inspires a tilt for mayor by a prominent businessman determined to clean up the place could have made a fantastic movie.
Joker is not that movie. Instead it is more interested in Arthur’s increasingly dangerous behaviour than in filling out supporting roles. Most of the other characters are sketches only and they offer little insight into a subject full of potential. Arthur’s ability to get away with so much without more than cursory police attention doesn’t seem convincing especially as the original murders are all over the papers. I’m also not sure that a popular tv show would really invite him to appear and it feels like a forced plot device to enable a shocking final act. In fact we are told so many unfortunate circumstances that befall or have befallen Arthur that it becomes unbelievable by the end and the more there are the less plausible the whole thing becomes,
That said there are some individual parts that impress- at one point Arthur empties out his freezer and climbs into it, a strand involving a neighbour has a surprising resolution and there’s a real movie moment when the face painted Joker dances down the same high flight of steps we’ve seen him trudge wearily up several times before. The nods to the wider known story are also well placed without intruding too much.
There is no doubt that Joaquin Phoenix gives his all for this role and such a committed performance deserves appreciation. The way he uses his body to convey Arthur’s awkward persona works particularly well. There’s quite a contrast too between the light yet eccentric dance we sometimes see and the hard brutality he dishes out at other times. I do think that the film concentrating so closely on him is sometimes to the detriment of the wider story though.
In terms of the violence this is in your face and on some occasions uncomfortable to watch because Arthur doesn’t really communicate much motivation for a lot of it unlike the initial crime. This leaves you with the impression it’s there to deliberately shock the viewer. Placing this sort of depiction of mental health issues on screen also sits uncomfortably with reality. I know it is period set and there probably weren’t the services available back then that we have now but what rankles more is the idea that Arthur’s actions can be excused by his background and what happens to him. Are we supposed to root for him because of those things? There are times, especially at the end, when the film comes very close to presenting him as an anti- hero with no balance to suggest otherwise.
The way it ends raises the possibility that very little of what we see actually happened with most of it contained in Arthur’s imagination which would certainly explain some of the anomalies but I’m not sure. Also you have Robert De Nor’s role as Franklin being almost the opposite to his part in The King of Comedy. Some people have also pointed out Arthur’s name shortened is A Fleck as in Affleck referencing the last actor to play Batman. Coincidence? Well the last line is “You wouldn’t get it” so maybe with a name like Joker the whole movie is one big joke albeit an unfunny one. So this is a film as awkward as its main character that falls short of the potential its foundations suggest. Its not all bad but it could have been much better. I want to like it more but somehow I can't. Perhaps I just don’t get the joke?