'Joker' Spoiler Review: Joaquin Phoenix Elevates a Disturbing, Incendiary Portrait of the Villain as Antihero

Reading around online, it would be easy to go into into Joker with a list of talking points in your head before you had even seen the movie. Since its unprecedented win last month of the Venice Film Festival’s top prize, the latest comic book tentpole from Warner Bros. and DC Films has become highly politicized—to the point where the idea of it and what it represents is almost a separate thing from the movie itself. Film festival premieres take place in an online vacuum where larger cultural forces have not yet swept in to surround a movie and define it. On the other side of them comes the escalation (of movie opinions) that Commissioner Gordon warned about at the end of Batman Begins.

Whether it’s a case of critics comparing notes and/or the film telegraphing specific concepts, reviews of Joker have frequently invoked the same buzzwords, such as “incel” and “income inequality.” There’s a lot of hand-wringing, in negative reviews, about the movie’s lack of a clear message. Comparisons abound, across the boards, to the films of Martin Scorsese, while in the background, the shadow of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting hangs over everything.

To be clear, it’s not without good reason that some of these talking points are out there, but now Joker is in theaters and general audiences have had a chance to square their own cinema experience against the pre-release media chatter. Members of the insane clown posse that is the Internet should probably brace themselves for the backlash to the backlash. However, until such time as a #ReleaseThePhillipsCut petition materializes, let’s not forget that there’s an actual movie with Joker’s name on it to be discussed.

Phoenix and Fleck Rising

The first thing that needs to be said about Joker is that Joaquin Phoenix absolutely holds the screen, from start to finish. Director Todd Phillips has made a feel-bad movie that somehow manages to be gorgeously shot and scuzzy, all at the same time. Handsome panoramas of the cityscape help establish a Gotham without Batman, where a garbage strike has left trash piling up on the streets. Down in the gutters, dwells a man named Arthur Fleck.

Arthur is repellant at times but you can’t look away from him because Phoenix is a veritable junkyard magnet. His performance is riveting and the early Oscar buzz for it is well-deserved. If anyone could secure an awards nomination for playing the Joker after Heath Ledger, it would be Phoenix.

Ironically, the latest awards-friendly actor to inherit the Joker mantle was once in a place where his career itself had become something of a joke. After his seeming implosion on Late Night with David Letterman in February 2009, Phoenix became the punchline of a Ben Stiller gag at the 81st Academy Awards. On Letterman, he had announced that he was retiring from acting, crossing over, as actors sometimes do, into bearded hip-hop. If you tuned in on Oscar night, as people often don’t, you would have seen him laughed at by an audience of his peers.

As it turned out, his cringeworthy reinvention as a rapper was part of an Andy-Kaufman-esque, life-as-performance-art stunt for the mockumentary I’m Still Here. Then came his remarkable, animalistic turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which revived his credibility and helped usher in a new heavyweight phase in his acting career. I say “heavyweight,” but of course, Phoenix had lost a lot of weight for the role of Freddie Quell, just as he has for Arthur Fleck. Maybe a better superlative would be “powerhouse.”

Now, ten years after his faux Letterman meltdown, we’re here in 2019. Phoenix, yes, is still here. He’s still got the goods, and just in case you forgot that line from his rap parody — “I don’t even fear fucking fear” — he’s not afraid to physically flaunt them: protruding his shoulder blades and rib cage like some demon-possessed person in a horror movie. His character, Arthur, exists miles underground from the penthouse where the Jack Napier of Jokers past could stand in front of a mirror and brush off compliments from beautiful blonde models (“You look fine,”) with a vain, “I didn’t ask.”

A different kind of narcissism festers within Arthur. In his daydreams and delusions, the world still revolves around him, but at one point, he confesses to his social worker, “All I have are negative thoughts.” He’s a sign-twirler who is terrorized by street kids and who loses his job after a gun comes spilling out of his clown costume at a children’s hospital. When he stands in his boss’s office and the camera lingers uncomfortably on his face, you can see his eyes light up with a spark of malevolence.

The movie positions Arthur — some say dangerously — as a Joker for the downtrodden. On the subway, he’s literally kicked while he’s down. At home, he sits in front of the TV and fantasizes about being in the studio audience for the late-night talk show “Live with Murray Franklin.” The nature of his fantasy life is such that the springy host, played by Robert De Niro, interrupts his monologue about super rats and super cats in Gotham City to tell Arthur, “There’s something special about you.”

Meanwhile, Arthur has designs on being a stand-up comedian, but since he suffers from an unspecified condition that produces fits of uncontrollable, wheezing laughter in him (it’s a movie version of the pseudobulbar affect, a real-life neurological disorder), his giggles and guffaws are conspicuously out of synch with the world around him. Joker frames this most acutely in a scene at a comedy club where Arthur sits scrawling notes about another comedian’s act. His notebook/joke journal is full of misspellings and incoherent observations. Late in the movie, after we’ve seen him contemplating suicide, he refers back to the line, “I just hope my life makes more cents than my death.”

Since the pseudobulbar affect is caused by brain damage, we can read between the lines and assume that it’s manifestation in Arthur is a result of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend. Flashback dialogue conveys the idea of him being chained to a radiator as a child. When he learns, via her old medical charts, that he’s adopted and she allowed this to happen to him, it’s enough to push him over the edge and get him to smother his mother with a pillow in the hospital.

Eventually, despite his matricidal tendencies, Arthur’s craggy face and sinewy body come into their own as the Joker with the best dance moves we’ve ever seen. He sees Fred Astaire dancing on television … raise your hand if you recognized the “Slap That Bass” number from Astaire’s 1937 film Shall We Dance. Arthur hears the opening lyrics: “The world is in a mess. Politics and taxes, people grinding axes. There’s no happiness.” It just goes to show that as much as the world has changed since 1937, there are still some things, like axe-grinding (political or otherwise), that never do change.

It’s a mad, bad world, Joker seems to say. Shall We Dance is also a germane movie title because, in all the wrong ways, Arthur’s sadsack life becomes a kinetic answer to that rhetorical dance proposition. At times, there’s an almost balletic grace to his movements. It an interesting affectation on the part of Phoenix’s Joker, one that belies the neighbor-stalking, coworker-stabbing wreck that is the rest of Arthur’s life. Is it a surprise when Arthur’s supportive girlfriend, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), turns out to be imaginary? Not really. The real Sophie lives down the hall from him, but their relationship, as shown, is wholly imaginary and that feels of a piece with his predicament.

I’ll confess to something: before Joker, I was ignorant of the very existence of an “involuntary celibate” subculture. I’m an American expat who lives in a country where mass shootings aren’t at all a thing. English isn’t the first language here, so I’m sometimes late to encounter new words that have entered the cultural lexicon. When I was reading advance reviews of Joker, it was suddenly incel this, incel that, and I had to research what they were talking about, because the reviews just took for granted that everyone knew what an incel was.

Affixing the incel label to Arthur Fleck in Joker might be reductive, insofar as it limits the thematic scope of the film to North America (where most shootings attributed to incels have occurred) and presupposes that angry Caucasians are the only lonely, sick males on planet Earth. I watched Joker with a Japanese audience and I doubt if many of the squirming heads in that audience were thinking about incels. They were probably thinking that Arthur seemed like the kind of guy who would carry out a knife attack at their local bus stop. Or the kind of guy who would set fire to an anime studio, killing three dozen people in one of the deadliest massacres in Japan’s post-war history. Entitlement, rage, mental illness … any of these might be better labels to apply to the case of Arthur Fleck.

The Clown of Wall Street

An important distinction to make with Arthur is that he starts out the movie, not as a sympathetic character, but a piteous one. There’s a difference. Joker takes us through the looking glass and shows us the dark inverse of The Wolf of the Wall Street. In the realm of Scorsese comparisons, that film, to me, is almost a more relevant touchstone vis-a-vis Joker.

The King of Comedy was once a lesser-known Scorsese film, but for the young and uninitiated, its connection to a high-profile comic book movie has increased its visibility around the watercooler as of late. It’s a good movie so that’s not a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be news to most cinephiles that Scorsese is a better filmmaker than Phillips. Joker wears its Scorsese influence on its sleeve and few, if any, filmmakers rise to Scorsese’s level, so comparing Phillips unfavorably to him is a pointless exercise. Now that the movie is in theaters, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to note the similarities between Arthur Fleck and Rupert Pupkin (or, for that matter, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, who also talks to himself and poses with guns in his apartment, albeit without the bumbling tendency to shoot holes in his wall like Arthur).

Thirteen months ago on /Film, I myself delved into The King of Comedy and how it and the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke could inform the upcoming Joker origin movie. So when I sat down to watch Joker in the theater, the connection there with that old Scorsese film was old news to me. For this and other reasons intrinsic to the film, I found myself keying in more on The Wolf of Wall Street as a point of comparison with Joker.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that asks us to bask (for three hours, no less) in the presence of the cheerfully corrupt Jordan Belfort. It’s one of those movies that makes you realize a protagonist doesn’t always have to be likable to be watchable. The film begins with Belafort launching a dwarf at the screen. Joker, it should be noted, employs some humor at the expense of a bullied dwarf named Gary (Leigh Gill, who played Tyrion’s stage double on Game of Thrones). Gary is less fetishized than Joker’s dwarf henchmen in The Killing Joke, and after driving a pair of scissors into his other co-worker’s neck and eye, Arthur winds up letting him live. Gary, it turns out, was the only person who was nice to the budding maniac at work.

More to the point, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t provide the audience with a strong moral counterpoint for Belfort. The closest we get to that is an FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler. At the end of the movie, this character is shown riding home on the subway (like Arthur), looking around at the plebeians aboard public transportation with him. This happens right after he’s seen Belfort’s lawyer feather a sweet deal for him in court. Thirty-six months in federal prison: Belfort weasels away with a light sentence, because that’s the way of the world.

Joker is another film where the central figure is an unabashed villain. That he begins the movie in the guise of a pathetic antihero doesn’t make him any less of a villain by the time the closing credits roll. The dilemma for some viewers, therefore, becomes whether they really want to sit through a two-hour villain’s celebration.

Remember Satan’s Circus, the headquarters of Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York? That’s the place where Jordan Belafort and Arthur Fleck live, too. It’s a place where Hollywood filmmakers are free to humanize and glamorize villains because, well, that’s entertainment. Transgressive art is nothing new and neither is the notion that it could provide unhealthy wish fulfillment for psychotics.

It’s not as though Joker is completely lacking in moral counterpoints. While Arthur is in the guest chair — talking about werewolf-ing out because “Everybody is awful these days,” and, “Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy” — Murray Franklin does call him out on his self-pitying B.S. Franklin’s audience is none too enamored of the clown-faced talk show guest, either. (There’s a separate layer to this scene that recalls the demolition-set awkwardness of Phoenix’s aforementioned Letterman appearance.)

This being Joker’s movie, Arthur gets the last laugh when he shoots the host in the head. It’s meant to be a shocking act, but did anyone really think Arthur would turn the gun on himself? He’s too obsessed with himself to allow that to happen. Really, that’s all he cares about: himself. It’s one of the things that makes attempts at politicizing Joker, a story that only cares about itself, all the more futile, perhaps.

At the very beginning of the movie, Phoenix arches his eyebrow when he delivers the line, “Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” As a feature-length riff on this idea and others, Joker demonstrates that it does have a brain (this, despite its star patterning his dance steps after the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.) What could have been a mercenary commercial endeavor turns out to be a film with some real artistic intent. Whether it not it achieves that intent is in the eye of the beholder, but you can’t refute it being there, colored in crayon strokes so broad that even us clowns in the blogosphere can read it.

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