Joker ★★

Ah, the discourse. It’s playing out exactly how the Joker would want. The real Joker, that is, not this one, because this one is not real. Joaquin Phoenix’s take on Gotham City’s psychopathic punchline is inhumane, and I don’t mean that in terms of cruelty or barbarity. Inhumane in that it lacks any shred of actual humanity - in trying to create a character that defies diagnosis, he has instead created a caricature, an embellishment. Arthur Fleck is a sack of skin pulled over a performance that is all show and no tell. Look at his weird laugh! Look at his weird dance! Look at his weird grin! Phoenix throws everything he can think of at Fleck, and sure, you can admire his craft, I guess, but it comes at the cost of credibility.

This clashes disastrously with the gritty aesthetic that Phillips has tried to pull off. Lack of nuance in the material notwithstanding, the actual tone he has aimed for in presentation is far more subdued than your average comic book fare, and Phoenix’s Joker simply doesn’t belong in that environment. Phillips recites pages from the Scorsese playbook, The King of Comedy most obviously, but you have to wonder whether he really comprehended exactly what he was regurgitating. There’s a time and a place for flattery, but comparison opens up to further criticism, and Phillips is wide of the mark of those he apes here. 

A smaller criticism is that, for an origin story of a multi-media super-villain, there is no actual progression of the titular character. From the start to the finish, there is no catalyst, no causation depicted that turns Fleck into the Joker. The defining events that may have affected him are referenced in brief, but we see no change in his personality, temperament or motivations occur on-screen. Instead, through happenstance he is almost forced into his destiny, whilst not being afforded any agency of his own. The change occurs around him, and this makes the character less compelling than any other iteration thus far. In one scene towards the end, there is a glimpse of Heath Ledger’s performance through the window of a police car, but it only reminds one of the gulf between that version of the character and this.

I didn’t despise Joker. It’s not a terrible film, and it’s certainly not a dangerous one. Those positioning this work as holding power enough to damage the moral fabric of society are doing enough of that damage themselves. Would it have been more subvervise, I may have found myself taking to it a bit more. Unfortunately, what it does have to say is not all that meaningful, and it is nothing we haven’t seen or heard (or done much better) before. That Joker lacks the savage streak it has been purported to have may just be the cruellest joke of them all.

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