Joker review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Joker is the type of comic book movie I so desperately want to champion. Here is a film without any vanilla special effects, typical hero journey, typical villain scheme, quippy script or simplistic themes. It’s a bleakly grim picture that frames its central character as a villain born from a swirling of societal ills. But, much like the film adaptation of Watchmen, Joker merely touches on these topics and never gives them enough nuance to say more than a shrug for the messed up state of the world.
There’s little doubt that the highlight of this picture is without question is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He plays Arthur, the unfortunate man who will become the Joker. Acting like a clown for local businesses and children’s hospitals, he becomes the target of beatings while on the job. Off the clock, he still becomes a target as he has a mental condition that keeps him laughing during inappropriate moments, making it hard for him to have conversations in public. He spends his evenings at home with his sick mother and watching his favorite talk show hosted by his idol Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Maybe one day Arthur could be on that show as the stand-up comedian he aspires to be. Maybe Murray will even think of him as a son and take him under his wing. Anything is possible in his imagination.
In the real world of Gotham, however, things only go from bad to worse. Medical funding will run out, forcing Arthur to lose his mental health case worker and be unable to obtain medication. A mishap on assignment will land Arthur without a job. His aged mother will reveal a depressingly dark secret buried in heartbreaking twists. During his descent, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care about his downfall. So why should he care about anyone else? Why should he care if he kills a few wealthy jerks on the subway? After all, the poverty public seems to appreciate his murders. Maybe he should keep it up.
I’m aware that for many the mere presentation of a darker Joker with fine performances and unceasing darkness will be a brilliant sell. Sure, on a surface level, the style is remarkable for this picture. But peering deeper into its construction and the distancing it places between the character’s struggle and the societal woes of his world is so bitter that it can’t be ignored. There are real problems within Gotham City that are reflective of our own but none of them build up to anything. This isn’t just in the manner of how Joker literally states he believes in nothing but how Joker himself is built up. We don’t see a progression of his lack of meds destroying his mind, at least not within the chaotic ending. We don’t see a questioning of the class structure past the visceral reaction of the protesters. And the fact that by the end of the film Arthur cares little for their movement as much the politicians forcing violence upon them just creates a toxic taste in the mouth. But, here, wash it out by watching the Joker dance to 1980s rock! Isn’t he something, folks?
All of the praise I’ve heard for the film ultimately comes down to the divergence towards a more gritty character study and that it touches on tougher topics. Indeed, the film does touch on class structure and societal lack of empathy. But how much can really be said by only touching these topics and never digging into them all that much? There’s an unhealthy view Arthur takes in this picture, born from forces far outside his control that turns him into a nihilistic villain and cracks the commentary of this being a cautionary tale. It’s this trap of the film that locks us so deep within the mental landscape of Joker’s narcissism that dare not question the capitalist system and corrupt politicians ultimately to blame for the build-up. I missed there not being a Batman in this film not merely as someone to fight Joker but someone to oppose his empty ideals of the world that has wronged the flawed. It’s this sort of emptiness within the film’s artistic flair that leads to terrible takes of the villain being right. The Joker is not right and neither is his movie that would rather watch Gotham burn than question any of its deep societal flaws which are never called too far into question. Wouldn’t want the rich to get less rich, otherwise, there’s no Batman with fancy tech to fight more tragic villains.