TIFF Review: Joaquin Phoenix brings the interesting ‘Joker’ to life

Courtesy of TIFF

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the 2019 Toronto International Film Festivalclick here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our full TIFF archives of past coverage.

Well, friends, it’s here: After steam-rolling all opposition in its path to the screen, Todd Phillips’ Joker is finally about to hit screens nationwide October 4. It stunned critics and Film Twitter figures when it took home the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival this year (from a jury led by Lucrecia Martel, of all people), and has inspired its fair share of controversy in the lead up to its release, with plenty of panic about what people might do upon its release, or how it might be interpreted by different audiences. These histrionics were, of course, undeserved, as Joker really isn’t concerned with whether or not We Live in a Society as much as it is interested in seeming like it is. But that’s not to say it isn’t without merit, either: Joaquin Phoenix’s much-heralded turn as the Clown Prince of Crime is more than worth a watch, and you might be surprised by how much you’re sucked in to this very weird and interesting jumble of influences and ideas. 

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a nobody rent-a-clown who we witness being assaulted by a group of kids in the very first scene we see him in, to which his co-workers respond to by giving him a pistol to protect himself with on the streets. He’s unstable, held together by an increasing number of antipsychotics and what very limited social resources the slowly-going-bankrupt Gotham City of 1981 has to offer him. His social worker is indifferent to his plight, though not because she doesn’t care: She just doesn’t have the capacity to help him. His meager earnings support him and his mother (Francis Conroy), and the only outlet he has is a journal/joke book that his social worker demands that he write in each day. He wants to be a comedian like his idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), whose talk show he watches eagerly every night, and Arthur dreams of potentially meeting him one day (sound familiar?). He has a slight crush on Sophie (Zazie Beetz), one of his neighbors in the run-down apartment complex he lives in, but he can’t bring himself to talk to her.

One day, everything changes. After getting fired from his job for taking said pistol to a hospital where he’s performing, he’s assaulted by three finance bros on the Subway coming home from work. Arthur murders the first two men in self-defense, but he unloads on the final man when the banker tries to run away; and the “clown killer” starts to become a symbol of resistance to the downtrodden men and women of the city. Mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) openly expresses his disdain towards the peasant revolt on a TV program that Arthur watches, and it’s then that he discovers that his mother has been secretly keeping information from him about her time as a housekeeper at Wayne Manor. This, combined with his newfound notoriety, transforms him into a monster, whose growing insanity and hyper-emotional nature threaten all those around him.

At every point, Phillips feints at meaning, clothing his story in provocative imagery that demands analysis, only for all of it to dissipate like cotton candy on the tongue. The script is as dumb as Moore’s for The Killing Joke is smart, and if you’re looking for the Joker to say the word “society” at some point, you won’t be disappointed. It is a hard thing to make a Pointed Satire that is intended to be all things for all people, but I necessarily wouldn’t chalk that up to “cowardice,” as others have. This was always going to be an inherently compromised film, given its origins within the studio system, involving properties worth more to shareholders than most of their families. Phillips eagerly wants to thumb his nose at respectability, to stress the tWiStEd import of his work, and some moments work better than others in their context. But slightly suggesting that the Joker might be somewhat like an incel or that the throng of goons that he inspires might be like anti-fascists, or that some element of racist resentment might motivate Arthur early on (most of the Governmental authority figures in the film are played by African-Americans, and a group of Latino kids beat him at the start of the film) isn’t the same as exploring these concepts in depth. The mere presence of these ideas seems to be consuming others and inspiring some measure of vitriol, and it feels like a massive overreaction to suggest that this might be “dangerous” art. 

Still, there’s plenty about Joker that makes it always compelling and watchable. One aspect of its engaging ways is Phillips’ aesthetic, which, when liberated from its constant Scorsese and Friedkin quoting, makes it one of the more vivid and interesting portrayals of the urban grime of Gotham on screen. There’s little of the empty modern stillness that defines Nolan’s take on the franchise to be found here, and the hyper-stylization of the Burton films is occasionally echoed, but the street-level perspective keeps our heads out of the gargoyles. I’m assuming that the director, the cinematographer, and his production design team crafted a look-book style bible that was pulled from the era’s gritty photography, and they’re often right on the money with its portrayal, though that can occasionally lean a bit too heavily into fetishism. Scenes on the subway echo Bruce Davidson’s documents of urban life in the rough-and-tumble New York ‘80s, especially when things get rough (like in the second photo out of this link), and the vivid, crafted look of the studio talk show that De Niro’s character hosts. But where Phillips’ approach really shines is when he starts to quote comics from the same era, such as one shot in the studio’s control room near the end of the film that evokes Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returnsin a very blunt and fascinating way. 

Then there’s Phoenix, whose work here is often stunning, no matter how dire the material his script gives him gets. His quiet affect is undeniably creepy, especially when Phillips just lets him go to work, free of the blaring, overcompensating score (seriously, I hate the fucking music in this movie, and I wish that they’d just release a version that only keeps in the needle-drops and the diagetic sound), like when we see Arthur sitting in a crowd at a comedy club, taking notes, laughing off-cue and looking around at his fellow audience members in a kind of awkward confusion at what’s making them chuckle. The ceaseless nervous laughter that Arthur can only rarely control in stressful situations is a heaving, painful expression of pressure and grief, and the different laughs he uses over the course of the film are very interesting in their contexts. His skinny, frail body — the antithesis of his beefy appearance in Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here, a film that is constantly echoed by Phillips’ work, perhaps indirectly — is by far the biggest addition he’s made to the character’s portrayals over the decade, and Phillips’ camera is in love with him, capturing each moment in the awkward Qigong-like dancing he does to remain sane, gorgeously ugly in a captivating way. When Arthur finally embraces his worst impulses, Phoenix channels a version of the comic character that feels both classic and fresh, ripped straight from the comics yet at odds with its origins in a deeply cinematic fashion.

So, will you enjoy Joker? I enjoyed my time with it for the most part, despite Phillips’ worst instincts often defining much more of the film than I would have liked. If you’re the kind of person who pulls for a corporate conglomerate like a horse you’ve put ten grand on at the track, Phillips’ movie will probably sate your desire for an ambitious-seeming comic book-movie that is most definitely different than whatever Marvel is putting out at the moment. If you’re going into this expecting to hate it based on pre-release word, or are looking for tangents and threads to tease out for your Twitter followers, you won’t be disappointed and you’ll have much to tear into in the weeks and months to come. But is this movie really deserving of all of the trouble, all of the stress, that will come in its wake? Not really.