You may have just read that I gave this film a seven out of ten, but frankly, it could range from the lowest to the highest possible depending on which contexts I take into account. Compared to the endless bland superhero movies we’ve been fed recently? A perfect ten. As a coherent political call to arms with a clear message? Barely cracks a three. So for this review of Todd Phillips Joker, already the most controversial film of the year and maybe of the past few years, I’ve attempted to split the difference and judge it without an overt focus on external meanings I may otherwise try to impose on it – I didn’t expect Far From Home to give me a full Marxist breakdown, so I’ll try to judge Joker on what’s there rather than what’s not.
Functioning primarily as a character study for a character that has existed in numerous iterations for over 80 years, Joker gets into the mind of Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man who struggles with social interactions, his physical health, and his desperate attempt at a career in stand up comedy. In perhaps the cruelest depiction of Gotham yet, you’re invited to powerlessly watch as he is spat upon by every upper echelon in the city, left to look after himself and his mother when he can barely function in society. On levels both personal and political, Fleck is at the bottom of the ladder, and all of this is punctuated by an ironic tic: laughing maniacally when he’s stressed. The film takes its time delving into each and every situation that turns him from a confused, lonely man into a brutal, chaotic killer; at two hours long, this can sometimes drag, but the brief, scattered moments of manic energy prior to the climax help to keep it moving.
Without Joaquin Phoenix’s haunting performance, this film would be nothing. Even those who couldn’t stand Joker have acknowledged that he elevates it beyond Todd Phillips muddled direction with an attention to detail and interiority far beyond what the script alone would allow for. Looking past the already impressive physical transformation that turns Phoenix from classically handsome to shriveled and decayed, its the smaller moments that really affected me and let me become fully entranced with a man doomed to corruption and sadism. My favourite by far of these is his tensed physicality during the forced laughter sequences, the dissonance between his face and body language conveying an uncanny yet heartbreaking gesture.
But by looking only at the disturbing progression of Joaquin’s Fleck into the Joker, I would be ignoring a larger, messier portion of the film: the simulacrum of social issues. With so many references to the revolt of the lower classes against the uncaring rich, I found myself working overtime to make connections and bring this theme full circle – but I couldn’t quite make it work without projecting onto a film in a way that has little to do with its content. As Fleck himself refers to his actions as ‘unpolitical’, it’s difficult to unearth a message from this film that matches its grandiose, revolutionary tone, leading me to two potential conclusions: Joker is either a masterpiece of nihilist machismo, or a pretentious and self-contradictory film that uses only the imagery of greater significance.
As hard as it is to put these criticisms aside, I did still find Joker to be a compelling and exciting film. If a comic book movie has challenged this many people to discuss classism, masculinity, mental health care and more, then I have to give it some props – Marvel rarely dare to discomfort their audience in any way, and it’s certainly fresh to have such a familiar figure be the cause of so much fascinating and conflicting discourse. Even if it disappointed you, I’m sure that it got you talking.