Across comic books and movies, through each characterization or backstory change, the core of the Joker is that he is always an agent of chaos, committing violence to create hysteria and disorder. Past iterations of the Joker have furthered this idea by obfuscating the character’s past, making him seem a force of nature instead of a man; as noted by A.V. Club film critic A.A. Dowd, “The Joker just is.” Todd Phillip’s Joker does not give us this Joker.
The Joker in “Joker,” a man known as Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix), causes plenty of chaos, but Phillips shows hysteria and disorder already exists in Gotham without the Joker. News reports flash details of super rats, labor strikes and garbage piling up in the streets. Thomas Wayne, in-movie millionaire and mayoral candidate, makes one hopeful campaign promise after another as his city suffers. Arthur does not create Gotham’s chaos, but he harnesses it for his own means, using the political outrage of others as a vehicle for his own personal issues. Arthur is a broad, blunt and hammy clown, his flamboyance a distraction from the hollow meaning of everything he says; in much the same way, “Joker” is itself too heavy-handed and scatter-brained to make much of a coherent point. However, the film’s style and conviction allow it to hit ascendant highs amidst its own mess.
“Joker" follows Fleck, a citizen of Gotham City circa 1981. Arthur cares for his ailing mother and dreams of being a stand-up comedian, but he struggles with severe mental illness and a condition that makes him laugh as a reaction to any strong emotion. Arthur works as a clown, a job he claims to love even though he cries while putting on his makeup. The film also stars Robert de Niro as Murray Franklin, a late-night television host who Fleck idolizes; Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother; and Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond, Arthur’s love interest. "Joker" lacks a traditional plot, and threads weave in and out of the story. However, the focus remains on Arthur as he starts cracking under the pressures of his life. Phoenix disappears into the role of Arthur, carrying whole scenes with little more than his facial expressions and frail physicality. Even at his meekest, Phoenix makes Arthur sparkle with flamboyant rage while still having a childlike understanding of the people around him. Arthur’s laugh, harsh and grating, becomes more and more tragic as his life falls apart. All he can do is cackle as his world crumbles.
Arthur’s condition also demonstrates the script’s broad-handedness. This is a clown and aspiring stand-up who uncontrollably laughs at everything. This is the level at which much of the movie’s provocations operate–Arthur vandalizes a sign so it says “Don’t Smile”; he scribbles “Put on a happy face” onto a mirror; he smears cigarette ashes into a smile on his wall. Beyond Arthur, the film is riddled with so-clever-it-is-not moments such as these. The film makes points about how society neglects those who need mental health services and how media creates distance from those around us, but its lack of nuance prevents these points from cohering into a stronger argument.
Although the film struggles with complex emotion, the simplest moments roar with life. An early scene of Arthur walking home conveys deep sadness by framing him in close-up, letting Phoenix’s face and the terrific score convey the heartbreak at Arthur’s core. Phillips also lets violent scenes play out as disparate bursts, full of searing brutality but plain in presentation, driving in how little taking a life means to Arthur. In these moments, the film’s directness works in its favor; when it keeps things simple, each aspect of the film has room to breathe.
Credit should be given to composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, whose haunting cello score conveys the lonely ache of Arthur’s existence. According to an interview Guðnadóttir did with IndieWire, Phoenix based elements of his performance off of Guðnadóttir’s score, dancing to the themes in real time for certain sequences. Guðnadóttir says that director Todd Phillips gave her “so much space and so much trust,” and she felt she got to “grow with the project.” The score is woven deeply in the film, conveying Arthur’s transition into the Joker through the addition of varied instruments and more intricate rhythms.
Another of the movie's strengths is its cinematography. The film paints with a visceral palette of violets and vermilions, greens and yellows; shots of Arthur dancing in the glow of blue lights, his green hair waving across his face, are stunning. Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher frame much of the action in close-up, allowing us to see each furrow of a character’s brow. Sometimes this works against the emotion of a scene; the multiple dancing sequences in the film struggle to convey Arthur’s balletic frailty by not letting his movement occupy the whole frame. However, urgent sequences benefit from this approach; the choppy editing and disorienting close-ups of an ambulance ride masterfully disjoint the audience. The more fluid takes that do appear are breath-taking, with Murray and Joker’s performances being filmed in dynamic sweeps, reminiscent of last year’s "A Star is Born."
Even if the script, co-written by Scott Silver and director Todd Phillips, fails at locating nuance in the story of Arthur Fleck, or making much of a coherent point at all, "Joker" nevertheless hits remarkable highs and performs daring feats for a mainstream studio production, a comic book movie no less. Although some of his more broad instincts hurt the work, Phillips’ ability to get deep performances from the cast, composer and cinematographer should be commended. The acting, the score, the cinematography and yes, that magnificently stupid dialogue, all weave together to make "Joker" what it is. All of the highs, all of the lows, come from Phillips leaving each element of the film enough space to grow and discover their own best selves, even if for a moment. Despite its worst tendencies, "Joker" still coalesces into moments of raw cinematic power